Can we make the internet less power hungry? – BBC News

  • By Michael Dempsey
  • Business technology journalist

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There is no internet without data centers

Much of what we do every day involves a data center. Shopping online, streaming TV shows, reading this story – they all need data to be archived and readily available.

The immediacy and convenience of these services is great, but that comes at a cost.

Data centers need huge amounts of electricity to run them – a large facility will use the same amount of electricity as a medium-sized city.

The situation is particularly dire in Ireland, where a relatively small electricity grid hosts a growing number of data centres.

More than 20 of these are located in Dublin, where Microsoft and Amazon have built very large sites.

That alarming demand for electricity forced the Irish government to act.

Sustainability is now a precondition for approving new data centers with the government stating that “newly built data centers must be able to flexibly reduce energy consumption”.

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Ireland is a major hub for Amazon, Microsoft and other tech giants

The technology is being implemented in hopes of making data centers less burdensome on the electricity grid.

A new facility, opened in Grange Castle on the outskirts of Dublin, has its connection to the electricity grid managed by software from the Eaton firm in collaboration with energy giant Enel.

If the wider power grid is under stress, electricity to the data center is cut and backup systems kick in immediately.

All data centers operate sophisticated standby systems that keep them running in the event of a power outage.

The first line of this defense is Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) devices. These are truly sophisticated batteries that are activated in the fraction of a second they are needed and run long enough for a diesel generator to run or to restore mains power.

At Grange Castle, Eaton’s UPS kicks in and releases energy onto the grid when the grid’s electrical frequency, measured in hertz, fluctuates in a way that indicates it is under stress.

This could happen as energy from unstable sources, such as Ireland’s vast wind farms, declines.

Many data centers already remove demand from the grid for a predefined period using established technology from companies such as Schneider Electric and Vertiv.

But the Grange Castle deal is said to be the first time a live, dynamic relationship has been established between a data center and a nationwide network.

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Ciaran Forde says his company’s system can help relieve strain on the electricity grid

Eaton’s Ciaran Forde is a data center physicist. He says Eaton’s system acts like a pressure valve that takes the data center away from the grid for valuable interludes.

Data center owners are paid for this flexibility by the Irish network operator.

Jay Dietrich, of the Uptime Institute, which certifies data centers for resiliency and reliability, says income is probably the biggest reason data center owners want to be flexible.

“They’re not doing it for noble reasons. They’re doing it for cash flow and revenue,” says Dietrich, whose career has involved working on energy policy and climate change at IBM.

Ireland provides a snapshot of a global problem.

In July 2022 London’s governing body, the Greater London Authority, wrote to housing developers in the west of the capital warning they could face long waits before new developments could be connected to the grid.

Despite the housing shortage across London, new residential projects could be delayed by a decade as data centers in the Thames Valley were catching up on electrical capacity, leaving the grid unable to supply power for London’s growing population.

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Data centers host thousands of servers, devices that receive, store and send data

How did we get here? Eaton’s Mr. Forde says it’s really due to the explosive growth of cloud computing, the trend that has seen companies outsource much of their data storage and processing to third-party companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

He points out that the use of the term “cloud” is highly misleading, as it is “a very physical thing”.

The cloud doesn’t float in the atmosphere, it’s made up of computer servers with a vast appetite for electricity.

The Irish example highlights how a combination of environmental concerns and grid capacity concerns has sparked a race to salvage the data center industry’s reputation.

New technology fixes are under development.

In Brunello, a town near the Swiss border in northern Italy, data management firm Pure Storage is putting a data center on a digital diet by chopping up bits and bytes and eliminating excess information.

Brunello’s storage devices use software that detects when information is unnecessarily duplicated and deletes that material. This perpetual review and removal process limits the growing volumes of data.

It sounds like a mundane job for the IT department, but this program is taking on the data center industry’s biggest enemy head-on. It is reducing the horrific appetite for electricity that characterizes all data centers. Pure claims it can reduce a data center’s energy consumption by up to 80 percent.

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Data center companies focus on reducing electricity consumption, says James Petter of Pure

Pure executive James Petter, who came to the technology via the British military and Coca-Cola, takes an outspoken approach to the issue of energy use and has no illusions about how important it is.

“We design our equipment around the principle of reducing energy consumption. And right now all the inquiries we get from potential data center customers are about energy consumption.

“Before, they asked about the technology and the price, but today what matters is carbon emissions and renewable energy. It’s just about carbon footprints, everyone is on the bandwagon.”

He says this trend has taken off over the past couple of years as energy use has risen to dominate “the CEO’s agenda.” Speaking from Riyadh, he describes how the last three data center vendors he spoke to in Saudi Arabia were all deeply concerned about their carbon footprints.

Mr. Petter is reluctant to admit that there may be a limit to the amount of data we can store. “The macro trend is for data to increase. I think the innovation will continue, there will be new ways to store data.”

It’s not in the commercial interest of the tech industry to impose limits on the number of photos we all store in the cloud.

But if data centers are to get planning permission and maintain public approval, they’ll need to focus on imaginative moves that reduce their massive energy consumption.

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