Jeff Rothschild’s machines at Facebook had a problem he knew he had to solve immediately. They were about to melt.
The company had been packing a 40-by-60-foot rental space here with racks of computer servers that were needed to store and process information from members’ accounts. The electricity pouring into the computers was overheating Ethernet sockets and other crucial components.
Thinking fast, Mr. Rothschild, the company’s engineering chief, took some employees on an expedition to buy every fan they could find — “We cleaned out all of the Walgreens in the area,” he said — to blast cool air at the equipment and prevent the Web site from going down.
That was in early 2006, when Facebook had a quaint 10 million or so users and the one main server site. Today, the information generated by nearly one billion people requires outsize versions of these facilities, called data centers, with rows and rows of servers spread over hundreds of thousands of square feet, and all with industrial cooling systems.
In a yearlong investigation into the energy usage by online companies, NYT found “the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.”
The problem seems to be one of sheer laziness: “Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.” Rather than monitor demand and adjust capacity accordingly — like a utility — data centers just run everything at full blast all the damned time.
And it’s here that the argument that reducing our dependency on fossil fuels means economic disaster dies. That’s why this argument is made mainly by energy producers — oil and coal companies, for example. If everyone cut back on energy usage, coal companies would make less money, sure. But everyone else would make more. If we put real effort — I’m talking Apollo project effort — into reducing energy consumption, we’d have energy for dirt cheap (not only because we use less, but because supply and demand would drop the price at the same time) and a cleaner environment. Meanwhile, all this new technology would give birth to entire new economic sectors.
New technologies, new industries, new markets — yup, sounds like a real economic nighmare, huh? Much better to keep shoveling coal and money into 20th century furnaces to keep the 21st century world running full-freakin’-throttle, 24-7 — whether we need it to or not.