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Data centers ran 550 percent more applications in 2018 than they did in 2010, but they only used 6 percent more energy to do so, according to a paper published today in the journal Science.
Data centers accomplished that, according to lead author Eric Masanet of the University of California Santa Barbara, by improving energy efficiency.
“The paper finds that the energy use of global data centers is lower than commonly thought, despite recent rapid growth in demand for data,” Masanet told me via email.
The study disputes recent predictions that data centers will cause rapid and unavoidable near-term growth in energy demand. According to Masanet and his co-authors—including Nuoa Lei from Northwestern University and Arman Shehabi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—that growth in energy demand may be avoidable.
Prior authors extrapolated energy use from data demand without considering simultaneous gains in efficiency, the new study says. Their predictions suffered from a lack of “bottom-up” information on data center types, locations, equipment, and energy-efficiency trends.
Masanet’s team included that information and then examined the global increase in compute instances—a measure of the energy-intensive applications run on servers. They also looked at data volume, measured by IP traffic, and found it increased 11-fold since 2010.
Energy use increased only 6 percent, however, to about 205 terawatt hours. That’s still a hefty number—about 1 percent of global electricity consumption.
The industry has room to increase efficiency even more, the authors say—to a point.
“Yet the IT industry, data center operators, and policy-makers can’t rest on their laurels,” the study says. “Diligent efforts will be required to manage possibly sharp energy demand growth once the existing efficiency resource is fully tapped. The next doubling of global data center compute instances may occur within the next 3 to 4 years.”
The authors recommend that policymakers:
- Strengthen and promote efficiency standards for servers, storage and network devices,
- Develop efficiency benchmarks and publish the measured performance of IT devices,
- Shift as much data processing as possible to cloud services at the cutting edge of efficiency,
- Give data centers incentives to use renewable energy,
- Support research into computing, data storage, communications and heat-removal technologies, including quantum computing, artificial intelligence and ultra-high density storage materials, and
- Improve public data and modeling for data-center energy use.
“Given the important role data centers will play in future energy systems, the historical dearth of knowledge on their energy use and the mixed signals given to policy-makers by contradictory findings are unacceptable. Global data center energy use is entering a critical transition phase; to ensure a low-carbon and energy-efficient future, we cannot wait another decade for the next reliable bottom-up estimates.”