Compared to What?
Although he wasn’t the first to say it, Mark Twain popularized the saying that, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” While lies and damn lies tend to be pretty binary, the use of statistics often takes us into new realms of illusion, obfuscation, overzealousness and misplaced concern. Very often the use of a statistic to carve out one’s position is problematic. due to the nature of the discipline itself, factors such as sample size, the sample itself, not using the proper test for validity and everybody’s favorite: “correlation does not equal causation” aren’t well understood by the population at large. This lack of statistical understanding all too often results with the public forced into an “okay, if you say so” mode of critical assessment. Perhaps the most misleading use of a statistic its represented to describe a situation to which we should all be concerned when we really shouldn’t. In the data center business, this is the “data centers consume 2% of the country’s energy” pearl clutcher.
When announced in 2008, the 2% consumption figure had most of us saying “yeah, that sounds like a lot of electricity.” For many, however, this factoid was seen as the first sign of an imminent energy apocalypse with a 12 foot sea rise to follow. The results of this newfound energy-related urgency have been very good (corporate efforts to increase data center energy efficiency), kind of good (sustainability is a thing) and myopic (the total aversion to nuclear power). Note:Per the US Energy and Information Administration, the 2% figure has remained relatively static since 2010.
The most curious aspect of the 2% crusade is that everyone, including leading daily periodicals, accepted the figure, and its implied ominousness without asking the logical follow-up question, “compared to what?” While 2% of total energy usage sounds like a large figure, and it is, when it’s compared to the levels of utilization by other industries in the country it becomes a lot less Book of Revelations and more, “Oh, okay.” The US food processing industry, for example, more than doubles the power consumption of data centers, 5%, and paper production accounts for another 6% (aside- I wonder what that percentage was before e-Readers – my guess is that percentage alone might be 2%).
As you might expect, the energy use by our industrial sector sucks down the most significant volume of electricity with Bulk Chemicals, Refining, and Mining combining for almost 60% of the country’s power consumption. If you’re looking for a sector that does approximate the data center industry, Cement and Glass processing, and production also pulls down a now less than eye-popping 2%. When we look at things from a comparative perspective, the data center business becomes a model of energy usage moderation rather than a growing scourge on the nation’s power grid. After all, when you look at the increase in capability (compute, network and storage), its pretty amazing to me that it is a flattened energy usage curve (Kudos to the early clarions on usage like Jon Koomey). Like so many things in life, isn’t this whole consumes more and it bad issue just a question of perspective?
As any data center operator will tell you, enhancements to a facilities energy utilization is a surefire way to make a positive impact on the corporate bottom line, but didn’t we know this before the 2% pronouncement? For the conspiracy-minded of you out there, the summation of data center power usage was not part of some secret plan to raise the price of wind and solar stocks, yet it did help place a laser-like focus on a critical element of data center operations. But our collective failure to ask for a more calibrated measuring stick did result in all too many of us acting as ill-formed soothe-sayers regarding the downsides of data center proliferation. Statistics can be a valuable analytical tool, but in divining their actual meaning, we should take the advice of Twain’s distant predecessor, Pliny the Elder, and take them, “with a grain of salt.”
Note:We’ve updated this post based on feedback from Gary Dick that indicates the origin of the 2% figure pre-dates the year we referenced.
EPA Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency-Public Law 109-431
“Use of Energy in the United States Explained, U.S. Energy and Information Administration, July 23, 2018