Why the majority of data centers are failing at energy efficiency

Hear more about data centers at the VERGE Salon NYC on Sept. 16.

We've been subjected to dire predictions about the excessive power consumption of data centers for years. While the worst forecasts proved overblown, that doesn't mean there isn't a problem—especially within the roughly 3 million facilities that aren't part of massive server farms being built by the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

A new tally by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggests there's still a big opportunity to cut energy usage by 40 percent, saving more than $3.8 billion in 2014 alone.

Put another way, that's like switching off 39 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, the equivalent of 14 large, coal-fired power plants.

"Most of the attention is focused on the highly visible hyperscale 'cloud' data centers like Google's and Facebook's, but they are already very efficient and represent less than 5 percent of U.S. data center electricity consumption," said Pierre Delforge, NRDC's director of high-tech energy efficiency. "Our small, medium, corporate and multi-tenant data centers are still squandering huge amounts of energy."

Here's the likely outcome: By 2020, U.S. data centers will probably require about 140 kilowatt-hours of electricity to keep online.

The biggest culprits in wasteful IT power consumption are underutilized servers using significant amounts of electricity without performing any useful purpose, according to NRDC. The research was developed in partnership with with Anthesis. Shortsighted procurement practices and policies for overprovisioning that basically keep unused servers in place "just in case" don't help either.

Figures suggest the average server operates at just 12 percent to 18 percent of its capacity, which means businesses could stand to be far more aggressive about consolidating or virtualizing them. That's particularly true of the smallest server rooms, ones that crop up with little advance planning.

"The more work a server performs, the more energy-efficient it is—just as a bus uses much less gasoline per passenger when ferrying 50 people than when carrying just a handful," the analysis notes.

Among the recommended fixes for this persistent problem are the adoption of metrics that provide deeper insight into average server utilization, more public disclosure of data center energy performance information, and "green" data center leases that provide incentives for energy savings.

The reason why these green data center service contracts work, according to the report, is because they create financial incentives for companies to consider their energy use. In the future, templates of such contracts might become available via the Green Grid.

"Similar to the green lease in the real estate sector, a green data center service contract could dramatically scale up this effort and lead to a number of key benefits beyond the financial advantages of increased performance," the report noted.

Photo of data center server room by Oleksiy Mark via Shutterstock