Microsoft Denies Energy Waste At Data Centre

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

NY Times’ data centre energy waste story was just hot air?

Microsoft has responded to criticism that it deliberately wasted energy at a data centre that was supposed to be highly efficient – saying the issue was overstated  in the New York Times. 

The data centre industry has criticised a series of articles in the NY Times that portrayed it as wasteful. Microsoft has responded to a particular incident in which the paper claimed Microsoft deliberately wasted electricity to avoid paying a $210,000 penalty to its utility provider in Quincy, Washington – for failing to use the energy in an agreed contract.

Data centre deceptions

Microsoft James M Phelps, Jr © Shutterstock 2012

Somewhat ironically, the story presented Microsoft in a somewhat favourable light. Quincy has renewable electricity generated from a hydro-electric power station, which was offered to Microsoft at a cheap rate, on condition that the firm used a certain amount.

TechWeekEurope hasn’t been told why Microsoft was under-consuming, but using less electricity is either an indication that the data centre was not taking off as fast as expected, or else it was being run more efficiently than predicted.

According to reports, the utility asked it to pay a fine that was so large, it would have been far cheaper for Microsoft if it wasted enough electricity to meet the target. Rather than do this, Microsoft says it negotiated a reduced fine.

“This was a one-time situation that was quickly resolved,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechWeekEurope,  in an emailed statement.  “In December 2011, Microsoft was informed by the Grant County PUD that it was about to be under the target energy usage projection we had been required to submit in advance of actual energy consumption (meaning that Microsoft was using less energy than projected). The penalty to Microsoft for being under target would have been more than twice the cost of unnecessarily consuming the energy.”

Microsoft said it discussed the issue with the utility, and an agreement was reached on 17 December, with Microsoft stating that it “could increase its power usage to address being under target”, but there was “no commercial reason for Microsoft to do so”, and  Grant County PUD reduced its fine to a one-off payment of $60,000.

The NYT article series has been criticised by Data Center Knowledge and Forbes for sloppy handling of the idea of efficiency  Having criticised in-house data centres for a low utilisation which is wasteful, the series seems to assume the same criticism applies to smarter cloud facilities operated by large operators – arguably missing the central point in the cloud’s environmental story.

Diesel pollution?

The NYT also reported on protests from Quincy residents who felt Microsoft was polluting by using its diesel back-up generators more than necessary – although third-party analysis found that particulate levels were very low in the city and Microsoft has flatly denied there is a problem, saying it would be foolish to over-use its generators.

“Diesel generators are a costly alternative to grid-supplied power,” said Microsoft utility architect Brian Janous,  in a blog post. “The cost to run generators is several times higher than power purchased from the grid. And that doesn’t account for the costs associated with purchasing, installing and maintaining the generators.”

Microsoft has pledged to be carbon neutral this financial year, by purchasing carbon offsets, and operating an internal carbon market. “To help us achieve that milestone,” the spokesperson told TechWeekEurope,  “we are holding ourselves accountable for carbon emissions by establishing an internal carbon fee for every business group which aims to improve efficiencies and increase our purchase of renewable energy.”

Microsoft has publicly said it wants to phase out diesel backup from its data centres and is already building more resilient facilities. There is no backup power for the parts of its Chicago data centre which are in containers, said Janous, and the newest part of its Boydton, Virginia facility is designed without any generators.

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