Economic Slowdown Helps Curb Data Center Power Use

Dennis Faas's picture

A new study suggests that computer data centers might not be using as much power as previously estimated. It appears that power use is still rising, but at a slower pace than in the past.

The report comes from Jonathon Koomey, a Stanford University professor that works at the Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory. He's put together figures on the growth of data centre electricity use around the world between 2005 and 2010, which follows on from a previous report he produced for the period from 2000 to 2005.

A data center is a facility that houses special computers known as servers. Rather than being designed to be used in person, a server works remotely and processes data. Uses include hosting websites, backing up data and carrying out operations such as running a database.

While electricity use roughly doubled in the US and worldwide in the first half of the decade, during the following five years it increased around 56 per cent globally and 36 per cent in the US. (Source:

Data Centers Still Significant Factor In Electricity Demand

That still adds up to a lot of juice: Koomer estimates that across the planet, around 1.1 to 1.5 per cent of all electricity is used by data centers. In the US, where data centers are disproportionately common, that figure is thought to be somewhere between 1.7 and 2.2 per cent. (Source:

The slower growth rate means a 2007 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Congress forecasting data center power use in 2010 has proven overly pessimistic.

That's partially because of virtualization, which involves a single hardware device being accessible by multiple users simultaneously as if they each had an individual computer (a much more efficient use of resources as it reduces the amount of unused computing capacity).

Financial Woes Curb Expansion

Another big factor was that the financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting recession and economic slowdowns in many countries meant companies set up fewer data centers. That's something of a bad sign, as it suggests expected improvements in the average energy efficiency of each data center haven't been fully realized.

There was some particular praise in the report for Google, albeit with a note of caution. The company builds its own data centers, which are designed to cope with the rapid increases in demand as the search operation constantly expands. That makes it much harder to make accurate assessments of data use.

Bearing that in mind, Koomey estimates that despite being one of the bigger operators of data centers in the industry, Google's facilities are so efficient that they use less than 1 per cent of all the power consumed in such centers.

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