July 11, 2006
Server Farms and the Environment
By: Rowan Wolf
Perhaps I am a bit slow, but a report on NPR called "Cheap and Reliable Power Nurtures Server Farms" stunned me. Back in about 1994, I was meeting with a group of internet consultants about connecting a program I worked for to the internet. One of them was explaining to me how the connection worked and mentioned that Portland (at that time) was connected to the Seattle "cloud." Having not a clue what he was talking about, I asked "What is a cloud?" He couldn't give me much of an answer beyond "something like a switching station" and that it was a "virtual" thing. Since that time "clouds" have remained one of those nagging questions in the back of my mind. NPR's report finally resolved that question. A "cloud" is a "server farm." However, the report went much further than that.
Quincy, Washington sits in Grant County and decades ago the local PUD (public utility district) built two power generation dams on the Columbia River. This has given them their own electricity, but also a bargaining chip with big tech companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo. The power they have to sell is at less than 1/2 the cost of the national average (according to NPR), and the big internet companies need lots of power. I was stunned by how much power they need.
Server farms are essentially large highly air conditioned building with rack upon rack of hard drives and networking equipment. Each "rack" is approximately 6 foot by 3 foot by 2 foot, and it takes the energy equivalent of 25 homes to run. Yes, 25 homes for one rack. The facility Microsoft is building in Quincy is three buildings roughly 800 yards long each. The facility will house tens of thousands of racks - each taking the energy to run 25 homes. Google, yahoo, and others are also building server farms (Google is building a facility in The Dalles, Oregon). These server farms (clouds) are all over the country, and they all take a lot of power.
I spend a whole lot more time reading things other than computer technical reports, so somehow I totally missed the information on server farms. Back in 2001, cNet had an article discussing the hit that these facilities make in a time when electrical power is at a premium. They note one case in particular - Dataport:
"It was an uphill battle for U.S. Dataport, a company in San Jose, Calif., that planned a $1.2 billion server farm that would be the world's largest data center. It called for 10 huge air-conditioned warehouses on 174 acres that would constantly draw 180 megawatts of electricity--about enough to provide energy for all the homes in a city the size of Honolulu."
Back in 2001, Konrad estimated that the internet sector was consuming about 8% - 13% of the nation's energy. Given the dramatic expansion of both the internet and computing, that total has to be much higher by now.
But back to Quincy.
Quincy is a farming community, and the real farms are disappearing under the server farms. The power requests are huge, and companies are flocking to Quincy to scope out the possibilities. Among the companies buying, or making inquiries in Quincy are Microsoft (already under construction 50 megawatts), Yahoo (has a 50 acre site), Pangborn investors (requesting 20 megawatts), and Ask.com (TriCity Herald). Each megawatt of power is enough to server roughly 10,000 homes (Berkeley Labs, 7/16/02). That means that Quincy will be consuming the power of a good size city in short order.
Quincy is not likely to gain too many residents, or jobs from becoming a tech age server farm community. NPR estimated less than 100 jobs from Microsoft's project. A look at Quincy is illustrative (from City Data):
- Estimated population in July 2004: 5,345
- Median resident age: 27.3 years
- Median household income: $32,181 (year 2000)
- Median house value: $93,000 (year 2000)
Races in Quincy:
* Hispanic (64.7%)
* White Non-Hispanic (33.4%)
* Other race (31.1%)
* Two or more races (2.8%)
* American Indian (1.9%)
In short, a farming community, but my guess is a community not skilled to participate in the new "agriculture" in their midst. In fact, given the amount of space these new "community members" are bringing in, a fait number of them are going to need to move on to other pastures.
I assume that what Quincy is gaining from the deal is more tax base. One question is, who will benefit from it? I also assume that currently Quincy is selling their excess power to the grid and that is providing power for others on the West Coast - particularly California. Where will California meet its energy needs as Quincy's power goes to high tech? With global warming threatening the flows in the Columbia River, and therefore power generation, what will the dramatically increased demand mean for Quincy and the Pacific Northwest?
1 rack = 25 homes, 50 MW = 50,000 homes, what beast have we built?
Posted by Rowan at July 11, 2006 9:40 AM Category: Environment