Down on the server farm

Interesting piece in this week’s Economist about the environmental impact of cloud computing.

Internet firms, meanwhile, need ever larger amounts of computing power. Google is said to operate a global network of about three dozen data centres with, according to some estimates, more than 1m servers. To catch up, Microsoft is investing billions of dollars and adding up to 20,000 servers a month.

As servers become more numerous, powerful and densely packed, more energy is needed to keep the data centres at room temperature. Often just as much power is needed for cooling as for computing. The largest data centres now rival aluminium smelters in the energy they consume. Microsoft’s $500m new facility near Chicago, for instance, will need three electrical substations with a total capacity of 198 megawatts. As a result, finding a site for a large data centre is now, above all, about securing a cheap and reliable source of power, says Rich Miller of Data Center Knowledge, a website that chronicles the boom in data-centre construction.

The availability of cheap power is mainly why there are so many data centres in Quincy. It is close to the Columbia River, with dams that produce plenty of cheap hydroelectric power. There is water for cooling, fast fibre-optic links, and the remoteness provides security. For similar reasons, Google chose to build a new data centre at The Dalles, a hamlet across the Columbia River in the state of Oregon.

Such sites are in short supply in America, however. And with demand for computing picking up in other parts of the world, the boom in data-centre construction is spreading to unexpected places. Microsoft is looking for a site in Siberia where its data can chill. Iceland has begun to market itself as a prime location for data centres, again for the cool climate, but also because of its abundant geothermal energy. Hitachi Data Systems and Data Islandia, a local company, are planning to build a huge data-storage facility (pictured at top of article). It will be underground, for security and to protect the natural landscape…