As I See It: All the Server People, Hot, Hot, Hot
August 27, 2012 Victor Rozek
The same day the temperature topped 110 degrees in Oklahoma, I happened to listen to a radio broadcast featuring several scientists and climatologists discussing climate change predictions for the Pacific Northwest. Computer models foretell that–in the not too distant future–temperatures will rise 7 to 15 degrees, and the snowpack in the Cascades may fall as low as 5 percent of current levels. As a result, some rivers are likely to be seasonal, and those with moderate water flows will be too warm to support salmon and other fish stocks.
In the Midwest, the future appears to have already arrived. Thousands of fish died in Iowa, where temperatures in the Des Moines River rose to a fish-frying 97 degrees. Water for agriculture and power generation–not to mention drinking–will be at a premium.
But unlike Des Moines, the Pacific Northwest stands to lose more than fish if water flows starkly decline. Hundreds of thousands of servers depend on a steady supply of hydroelectric power. Not to worry. Given the volume of untutored ideas that pass as erudition on climate change, you have to give computers a much better chance of survival than fish.
Indeed, if Midwest temperatures follow the same trajectory predicted for the Pacific Northwest, I wonder what they could possibly grow there in 125 degree heat, besides blisters. But I feel especially bad for people who don’t believe in science. For instance, the Texas legislature wants to eliminate critical thinking (the essence of the scientific method) from school textbooks because it makes kids rebellious. Rather than lower their carbon footprint, they’ll continue to swelter. “Reason is not automatic,” said Ayn Rand. “Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it.”
In contrast, the IT community is not threatened by science. It includes enough people who work in lab coats to understand that they are neither the devil’s spawn nor liberal conspirators. Before the Midwest becomes a cinder, technology companies are taking measures to safeguard their operations. There’s a growing understanding that the same consequences of denial and inaction that will befall us will also affect our machines. Every major technology firm is looking for inexpensive ways of keeping servers cool and providing them with accelerating energy requirements. Like trees migrating northward to more moderate climes, server farms are following similar migration routes. Giant herds of computers are moving north in search of less heat and more power.
The Pacific Northwest has been something of a launching pad for the northern migration. Known for its biblical rainfall and perpetual overcast, the region rich in hydroelectric power and blessed with a comparatively cool climate was a natural setting for the care and feeding of servers. The Columbia River serves as the border between Oregon and Washington, and both sides of the waterway are dotted with server farms. Google chose the Oregon side and built one of the first dedicated facilities in The Dalles–a monstrous 30-acre spread–conveniently close to a 1.8 gigawatt power station and a fiber-optic hub that connects Asia to the U.S.
Microsoft, Yahoo, and Dell chose the Washington side. The otherwise undistinguished farming town of Quincy now boasts perhaps the world’s largest collection of data centers. Five dams on the Columbia provide power at half price and, like cattle enjoying the benefits of subsidized grazing, hundreds of thousands of servers graze happily at rate payer expense.
Cheap power and moderate temperatures were clearly the draw in the Northwest. But the times and the temperatures they-are-a-changin’. Over 60 percent of the country is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. This year is once again shaping up to be the hottest on record. Crops are failing, and utilities are stretched to the point of collapse (think India), as air conditioners hum day and night to beat back the incessant heat. Even on the western, rainy side of Oregon, triple-digit temperatures are no longer uncommon. The wise are hedging their bets.
Google is looking further north, all the way to Finland in fact. At a cost of €200 million Euros, Google set up shop in a converted paper mill in the southern coastal town of Hamina. Finland is not notoriously warm, but taking no chances, the facility is the first server farm to use seawater as a coolant, pumped directly from the Gulf of Finland.
Meanwhile, Facebook is taking up residence across the Gulf of Bothnia in Sweden. It, however, is moving still further north to a town called Lulea, situated about a well-hit seven iron from the Arctic Circle. The location has everything a server farmer could hope for: it’s cold enough for environmental cooling, offers government subsidies, and clean, cheap power from the roiling Lulea River, which generates twice the electricity of Hoover Dam. And Facebook will need every megawatt it can get. The proposed facility will consist of three buildings totaling some 900,000 square feet of server space. The mayor of Lulea was so excited to be friended by Facebook that–in a moment of marketing exuberance–he dubbed his town “The Node Pole.”
Due west of Scandinavia lies the carbon-free renewable energy paradise of Iceland. Blessed with huge reserves of cheap geothermal energy, and an obligingly cold climate, (not to mention its central location smack between North America and Europe), Iceland is lifting its ecological skirt to attract data centers looking for a green home. Among the first to bite was UK-based Verne Global. Refurbishing an abandoned naval base in Keflavik (that’s near Reykjavik, the only city anyone has ever heard of in Iceland), it built a data center that is fully powered by renewable energy, and cooled only by the natural environment without need of chillers, compressors, or sea water. Verne Global makes its money in data center operations and recently attracted its first client to Iceland–Colt, a company which, by happy coincidence, manufactures data center modules. I smell synergy. Microsoft briefly considered Iceland as well, but was concerned about latency issues, preferring locations within 500 miles of large population centers. There is some irony in the fact that a company built on Windows is concerned about latency. But better late than never.
Microsoft may yet change its mind. Server farms use energy like Kim Kardashian uses celebrity. Some estimates project that by 2020 server numbers will multiply to require four times the energy they did in 2007. (One shudders to think what Kardashian will require.) Finding that much clean, inexpensive energy will be problematic. As the world heats up and hydroelectric flows diminish, Iceland may become the hot destination for millions of migrating computers.
Doubtless, we will find a way to take care of our machines. What several billion people will do is less clear. The climatic conditions that support human life comfortably are very narrow. Even now, Scandinavian condo developers are licking their lutefisk. One thing is certain: global warming skeptics will suffer right along with the rest of us. Reality shows remarkably little regard for personal beliefs.
They say that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But place it in cold water and raise the temperature gradually, and it will sit there until it boils to death. Given our spectacular inaction with regard to global warming, it would appear we have much in common with frogs.