Permabits and Petabytes

January 7, 2009

The Green Is A Lie

Filed under: Jered Floyd — jeredfloyd @ 10:08 pm

The Consumer Electronics Show is on this week and “green” is big news yet again, with 22 percent of consumers willing to pay more for the label, but even more being skeptical of what that label really means. They’re right to be concerned.

George Crump says today that “green is a ‘nice to have’,” because the number one concern in the current economy is ROI, and cost justification based on power savings is a very long term prospect. I agree — cost savings from power and cooling are not a significant motivator for most customers, and the ROI may well be negative.

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GREEN CAKE IS A LIE

Consider, for example, the pricing on Intel’s low-voltage processors. Intel offers an L-line of Xeon processors that are rated at 50W but are otherwise equivalent to their 80W versions. Newegg, my preferred discount retailer, has the L5410 (2.33 GHz) for $366 and the E5410 (80W equivalent part) for $291, so there’s a $75 premium for the lower power part. For the 2.5 Ghz models it’s an $80 premium. (This is down significantly from last year, where there was a nearly $300 price premium!)

Let’s assume an operating lifetime of five years, and that the processors are running at 50% utilization. (When the processors are not being used, the lower power nature of the L-series is irrelevant.) That means there are 21,900 hours of energy usage where the 30W different is meaningful, for a total power consumption difference of 657 kWh.

At home I’m paying a total of 18.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, so this would be a power savings of $124, or a total savings of around $50… assuming that I’m using the machine flat-out 50% of the time and I keep it for five years. Data center costs are different. James Hamilton suggests data center power costs of 7 cents/kWh ($50 power savings over 5 years, or a money-loser overall), and last year Robin Harris estimated prices as low as 25 cents per watt-year, or 2.85 cents/kWh ($19 power savings). Even when you double the power savings based on assuming all that consumed power gets turned into heat that has to be removed by an electrically-powered cooling system, we’re still talking peanuts, or negative peanuts.

Desktop processors aren’t the only place where green is in, SiCortex is doing the same in the supercomputer space. They understand the real industry issues around energy efficiency though, which I touched on in “The Greening of Storage” back in November. The real reason enterprise customers, and only enterprise customers, should care about specifically green-labeled systems is that power in high-density data centers is extremely constrained.

This isn’t to say that I’m against reducing power consumption, saving the polar bears, and all that. I use CFL bulbs at home everywhere I can (making sure to use the warm color-temp, high frequency, dimmable ones — the Wal-Mart special bulbs have given the whole technology a bad name). But even the mass-market processors, hard drives, and so forth are greatly reducing power consumption as part of the regular course of business, so there’s just no need to go overboard for something specifically billing itself as green.

The number one problem I hear from enterprise customers with data centers is that they haven’t filled their floor space, but they have used up all their power. They can’t deploy any new hardware without taking something else out. That’s why these customers care about power consumption! Energy efficiency is important, but when we’re talking about servers and storage let’s not wrap it in a veil of green. It’s really all about dollars and cents.

As Crump explains, that’s why deduplication technologies are the most meaningful green-tinged ideas today; they save power by massively reducing storage footprint. Using terabyte drives, as we shortly will, and reducing your physical storage needs are the ways you can replace many racks of storage in your data center with just one, and free up power budget for new equipment.

As for comparisons between green storage, this is something that’s sorely lacking. Organizations like The Green Grid and SNIA’s Green Storage Initiative are good places for this to happen, but they have the fundamental problem of vendor organizations — it’s politically hard to make anyone look bad. I’ll say more on that later.

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