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Lon Chaney Jr. and the New York Times

(Thoughts on the New York Times Article Part II)

The-Wolf-Man-1941- Compass DatacentersI like horror movies. Not today’s cleave them into a thousand pieces slasher fests, but good old fashioned on the edge of your seat “don’t open that door” spine tinglers. When I was a kid, I’d stay up to watch a wolfman picture on the late show, cover my eyes every time the lupine-cursed victim appeared on screen and still sleep with the lights on for the next two weeks. That was the epitome of scary when I was ten. I’m older now and different things scare me—although I’m still always up for a werewolf flick—like the line from the New York Times’ article that read, “…no single government agency has the authority to track the industry”. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine you’ve got a lot higher fear threshold than I do.

As I discussed in my previous post “A Punch in the Face”, the Times’ piece was less than flattering to an industry that provides the foundation for the global infrastructure that will comprise the bulk of the 21st century economy. Unfortunately, it also left many non-industry people with the impression that we operate in a clandestine and furtive fashion that is just begging for federal oversight. If this industry is going to continue to grow and prosper, federal intervention is the last thing we need.

“Government oversight” is a benign, even paternalistic, sounding term that would seem to imply a passive involvement with Uncle Sam just looking over the industry’s shoulder to lend a hand if necessary. What it really means is the institution of regulations overseen by an army of bureaucrats whose whole purpose in life is to act as speed bumps on the road of progress administering rules that are often at odds with industry goals—or anyone’s goals for that matter. For an example of regulation gone wild see my previous post, “I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help”.

Energy Star for Data Centers is a prime example of good intentions gone awry. Since LEED was deemed awful for data centers the EPA decided to apply the Energy Star label to data centers. Based on their wisdom and knowledge the #1 determining factor for the Energy Star rating is—drumroll, please—the location of the data center itself. Huh? Using this same line of reasoning does this mean that the washer and dryer I bought in Santa Clara is great but if I move to Houston it no longer qualifies? And who do I call to take the stickers off? This is the data center equivalent of the government defined “healthy lunches” that your kid won’t eat.

Unlike the government, our industry and the customers we serve have a powerful motivator to increase the efficiency of our energy use—profit. As the largest on-going data center operational cost, power usage has long been an area of industry focus. The facilities built today are far more efficient than those built just five years ago and enhancements in everything from UPS technology to DCiM tools continue to drive improvements in energy usage. We have two issues to overcome if we are not going to let things like the Times’ article compel a populist call for the government to “do something”:

  1. Data centers will always use a large volume of electricity
  2. As an industry we have failed to publicize our successes in this area and more importantly, explain what will be required to continue to expand the global digital economy. In other words, we’ve done a lousy job of marketing ourselves and establishing the narrative for the industry.

Fortunately, both of these issues are addressable. Regarding issue number one, let’s stop apologizing for the amount of energy consumed by data centers and focus on the continued level of progress that continues to be made to reduce energy usage. We need to explain that as users have come to view instantaneous access to the vast amounts of data that reside within data centers as an entitlement, the need for new facilities will only continue to grow. By emphasizing that the need to operate these facilities profitably demands that the industry continue its technological development efforts to reduce energy consumption, and by demonstrating how these innovations have improved efficiency over time, those outside the industry can see that we have taken a proactive approach to addressing the issue.

The response to issue two must build upon the future of the global digital economy narrative. This is an educational process that begins with the fundamental concept that data centers make everything from Facebook to instant commodities trades possible. Therefore, more data centers will be needed in the future and to support this requirement there will be a corresponding need for more power generation capacity. Our failure to effectively convey both of these messages will ensure that those outside the industry will define the perception of data centers, and their requirements, for us.

How we as an industry respond to this article, and the others like it that are sure to follow, will help determine whether the bony finger of government regulation reaches out and taps us on the shoulder. As an industry in its infancy, this is a relationship we’d be best to avoid—FCC Wavelength Regulation, anyone?. It’s a movie that we’ve all seen before and, just like for the wolfman, things don’t end very well.