Files, photos, databases…all these things end up stored in the country's data centers. And these technological beasts of burden never stop storing, managing and disseminating information. But for data centers to keep that kind of momentum, it takes a lot of energy. In fact, these centralized repositories suck down 1.5 percent of the United States' total electricity consumption. And it's expected to get worse.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates data centers, along with servers, will double their energy appetite to 100 billion kilowatt-hours by 2012. At that rate, that means it will cost data-center owners $7.4 billion annually to power these energy guzzlers. And the country will need to add the equivalent of 10 new power plants to support them.
"Within the next three to five years, all data centers are going to run out of either space, power or cooling, and face some sort of resource crisis," said Mark Monroe, director of sustainable computing at Sun Microsystems.
But all this pain could translate into good news for energy-efficient data-center technologies..
Already, 2007 has been a banner year for the IT industry's energy-efficiency efforts. Companies have shifted into high gear, making eco-savvy promises as they announce new technologies about energy-efficient chips, servers and storage equipment.
Among the first to make a splash was Hewlett-Packard. In March, HP said it would reduce the combined energy consumption of its operations and products 20 percent by 2010.
Not to be undone, Big Blue showed its new brand is green. In May, IBM said it was redirecting $1 billion per year to up the ante for energy efficiency. The plan includes new products and services to reduce data-center energy consumption. The company said the rollout holds the potential for an average, 25,000-square-foot data center to pocket a 42-percent energy savings.
These types of reductions can really add up - for every dollar spent on computer hardware, 50 cents is spent on energy. This amount is expected to increase by 54 percent, to 71 cents, over the next four years, according to analyst firm IDC.
In August, the EPA released a draft study that found the United States has the potential to save up to $4 billion in annual electricity costs with the help of energy-efficient equipment, design and management practices.
The report went even further, suggesting that if data centers streamlined their practices and bought into energy-efficient IT already on the market today, it could lead to a 45-percent reduction in electricity usage by 2011.
Some say those numbers are too aggressive. "You really have to go out to some bleeding-edge technology to get those," Monroe said. But that uncertainty doesn't mean Monroe and other industry members aren't working on the problem.
Data-center-related startups such as FastScale Technology are delivering a new generation of software virtualization, which allows businesses to consolidate applications and workloads onto a fewer number of servers. The Sunnyvale, Calif.,-based company snagged its first round of venture funding in March, raising $6.5 million from the likes of ATA Ventures and Leapfrog Ventures.
The virtualization space also witnessed a much-to-do public offering by VMware in August. The Palo Alto, Calif.,-based company dazzled with one of the most successful IPOs of the year when investors sent shares up almost 76 percent.
But for all the positive talk, many challenges still lie ahead. Among them is a lack of standards when it comes to measuring energy efficiency across the breadth of different vendors' products.
"If you were to walk into a random data center today and ask how efficient their facility was, odds are they would look at you a little funny trying to understand what you meant about efficiency," said John Pflueger, a technology strategist for Dell.
Pflueger and Monroe are members of The Green Grid, an industry group focusing on efficiency in data centers and computing. In August, the group said it is working to come up with ways to measure and reduce data centers' energy use.
But self-policing isn't an industry strong point, which is why the U.S. government is starting to consider developing Energy Star specifications for data-center equipment, such as servers, storage and network equipment.
"Manufacturers make claims about efficiency all the time," said Andrew Fanara, Energy Star program-development team leader for the EPA. But, if the claims aren't standardized, it's not a fair and honest comparison, he said.
If the government decides to offer a label that marks a product with an energy-efficient status, "it gives manufactures something else to compete on," Fanara said.
Either way, with data centers estimated to use up to 7 gigawatts of power at one time - the equivalent of the electricity generated by 15 power plants - companies working to solve the problem through new technologies have their work, and their market, cut out for them.