Datacenter trends: energy and siting

I applaud Online Tech. This Midwestern “managed data center operator” presents itself well on its Web site, through its blog, and also through standard social media. In particular, “The Best Place to Store Your Data: When Selecting a Data Center, Location Does Matter” caught my eye, for I have an interest in datacenter geography.

While I support the conclusion that “… Michigan is quickly becoming a popular destination for data centers and colocation”, bylined author Anna Ankenbrand’s evidence is weaker. She mentions, for instance, that “… energy consumed by data centers will continue to grow by 12 percent per year. Since energy costs is one of the fastest-rising expenses for data centers …”

The real trend in datacenter energy use is increasing efficiency, also reflected in revenue-per-rack or revenue-per-square-foot. Aggregate US energy costs indeed appear to be rising about 12 percent annually, while the global might be as high as 19 percent. Contrast this with the growth in datacenter traffic, which Cisco estimates at 31 percent annually for the five years to come. Construction costs, while hard to predict because of their dependence on business cycles, will probably rise somewhat more over the next five years than power.

Finally, while electricity rates are far lower in Michigan than in such traditional tech centers as California and New York, they’re lower still in the Pacific Northwest, Appalachia, and much of the West, from Missouri to Idaho. Ankenbrand is right to point out that cool weather is generally an advantage for datacenters, but Michigan’s climate doesn’t monopolize a favorable energy balance.

Similar analyses are possible for the advantages Ankenbrand claims for Michigan’s skilled work force and dearth of natural disasters. These are strengths for Michigan, but not quite as clear-cut as the numbers Ankenbrand presents. FEMA statistics on natural disasters, for instance, include drought events and conditions, which aren’t the risk for datacenter operation that floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes represent.

Michigan is a great place for datacenters, and Online Tech appears to take good care of its customers. Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that datacenter energy costs are an emergency with a single solution, or even the most important criterion for siting. Datacenter energy efficiency continues to rise; moreover, the shift to more centralized datacenter computing benefits global energy efficiency, because datacenter computing makes better use of electricity than the alternatives. Don’t let headlines pitched to different ends distract you from these realities. Right decisions in datacenter design remain the ones that balance different factors to produce the best computing results.

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