Pointy Elbows, Bags of Beans, and a little anthill excavation…A response to the New York Times Data Center Articles

I have been following with some interest the series of articles in the New York Times by Jim Glanz.  The series premiered on Sunday with an article entitled Power, Pollution and the Internet, which was followed up today with a deeper dive in some specific examples.  The examples today (Data  Barns in a farm town, Gobbling Power and Flexing muscle) focused on the Microsoft program, a program of which I have more than some familiarity since I ran it for many years.   After just two articles, reading the feedback in comments, and seeing some of the reaction in the blogosphere it is very clear that there is more than a significant amount of misunderstanding, over-simplification, and a lack of detail I think is probably important.   In doing so I want to be very clear that I am not representing AOL, Microsoft, or any other organization other than my own personal observations and opinions.  

As mentioned in both of the articles I was one of hundreds of people interviewed by the New York Times for this series.  In those conversations with Jim Glanz a few things became very apparent.  First – He has been on this story for a very long time, at least a year.   As far as journalists go, he was incredibly deeply engaged and armed with tons of facts.  In fact, he had a trove of internal emails, meeting minutes, and a mountain of data through government filings that must have taken him months to collect.  Secondly, he had the very hard job of turning this very complex space into a format where the uneducated masses can begin to understand it.  Therein lies much of the problem – This is an incredibly complex space to try and communicate it to those not tackling it day to day or even understand that technological, regulatory forces involved.  This is not an area or topic that can be sifted down to a sound bite.   If this were easy, there really wouldn’t be a story would there?

At issue for me is that the complexity of the powers involved seems to get scant attention aiming larger for the “Data Centers are big bad energy vampires hurting the environment” story.   Its clearly evident reading through the comments on the both of the articles so far.   Claiming that the sources and causes have everything to do from poor web page design to government or multi-national companies conspiracies to corner the market on energy. 

So I thought I would take a crack article by article to shed some light (the kind that doesn’t burn energy) on some of the topics and just call out where I disagree completely.     In full transparency  the “Data Barns” article doesn’t necessarily paint me as a “nice guy”.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I am not.  I am not an apologist, nor do I intend to do so in this post.  I am paid to get stuff done.  To execute. To deliver.  Quite frankly the PUD missed deadlines (the progenitor event to my email quoted in the piece) and sometimes people (even utility companies) have to live in the real world of consequences.   I think my industry reputation, work, and fundamental stances around driving energy efficiency and environmental conservancy in this industry can stand on its own both publicly and for those that have worked for me. 

There is an inherent irony here that these articles were published in both print and electronically to maximize the audience and readership.  To do that, these articles made “multiple trips” through a data center, and ultimately reside in one (or more).  They seem to denote that keeping things online is bad which seems to go against the availability and need of the articles themselves.  Doesn’t the New York times expect to make these articles available on-line for people to read?  Its posted online already.  Perhaps they expect that their micro-fiche experts would be able to serve the demand for these articles in the future?  I do not think so. 

This is a complex eco-system of users, suppliers, technology, software, platforms, content creators, data (both BIG and small), regulatory forces, utilities, governments, financials, energy consumption, people, personalities, politics, company operating tenets, community outreach to name a very few.  On top of managing through all these variables they also have to keep things running with no downtime.


Author: mmanos

Infrastructure at Scale Technologist and Cloud Aficionado.

7 thoughts on “Pointy Elbows, Bags of Beans, and a little anthill excavation…A response to the New York Times Data Center Articles”

  1. Mike seems like this topic has got your interest, I find it somewhat amusing that articles like this seem to be single out these Barns which in many ways are vastly more efficient than older ones across the globe. Recently I toured an older center with 20+MW and a PUE >> 2.4. Where is the series on these types of centers and how amazingly the owners/operators keep getting new government based tax breaks (kickback) to stay in operation. Many of these sites are in the middle of densely populated area’s too.

    I would have to agree with Mike on his self assessments all of which I find positive by the way. The fact that IT is getting less action oriented and led by more and more of the “uneducated masses” makes me wonder how long I can stand to be in the field.

    Fight the good fight Mike, many of us will have your back and help where we can. ok, keep fighting the good fight…. 😉

  2. I have maintained for years that the data center industry is not rocket science, if you know something about rockets. You know something about rockets and I think I do (most days).

    I also firmly believe that if there were really that big an outcry from voters or a real issue that politicians wanted to fix there would be a simple solution in the form of a policy (a tax for instance) on the environmental impact that data centers (or disposable diapers for that matter) actually have. There is not nor do I hear a lot of new bills sponsoring the proposals. Why? It is complex, it is interdependent.

    Would anyone want to unplug the internet? What about electricity – would we stand behind the alleged outcry and make our own sacrifice to not have power for 6 out of 7 days so that we can only use green power and share it with the internet, hospitals, and airports because green is such a small contribution to our overall electricity supply but makes us feel good? It’s a complex issue. This kind of solution works in theory – just like communism. In reality what we have works, is getting better through conscious decisions businesses are making and we all have the option of putting our living where our beliefs are and unplug whatever we want. I for one will leave the industry alone to figure it out. They collectively know a lot about rockets…

  3. The one thing that I find rather amusing about Jim Glanz’s article, and this might be pointing out the obvious, but it is so long – did he account for how much space his very lengthy article is taking up. Seriously though, there is a tremendous amount of fact thrown out about how much space is taken up, power used, generators sitting around, etc. to support a Data Center in this article. at the very end of the article, Jim is kind enough to emphasize the real driving need for this – consumers (ALL), and our demand for security, reliability, instantaneous gratification, etc.

    It is true there are many advances in technology that could be taken advantage of and most likely will. However those are not free, and too often they are more costly than maintaining the status quo.

    If there is a sudden upsurge of “consumer” concern over the big bad Data Centers, the “consumers” (all of us) might find us in a situation to where we do not have secure, reliable and quick access…or we’ll find that the cost of implementing those new technologies will be, more directly, passed on to the consumers.

    We must always keep in mind the concept of Supply and Demand – it is always represented that way (Supply precedes Demand), however it is the Demand that drives the supply. And we consumers are mighty demanding…and that will never stop.

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