SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jeff Rothschild’s machines at Facebook had a problem he knew he had to solve immediately. They were about to melt.
The company had been packing a 40-by-60-foot rental space here with racks of computer servers that were needed to store and process information from members’ accounts. The electricity pouring into the computers was overheating Ethernet sockets and other crucial components.
Thinking fast, Mr. Rothschild, the company’s engineering chief, took some employees on an expedition to buy every fan they could find — “We cleaned out all of the Walgreens in the area,” he said — to blast cool air at the equipment and prevent the Web site from going down.
That was in early 2006, when Facebook had a quaint 10 million or so users and the one main server site. Today, the information generated by nearly one billion people requires outsize versions of these facilities, called data centers, with rows and rows of servers spread over hundreds of thousands of square feet, and all with industrial cooling systems.
They are a mere fraction of the tens of thousands of data centers that now exist to support the overall explosion of digital information. Stupendous amounts of data are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances through Visa’s Web site, send Yahoo e-mail with files attached, buy products on Amazon, post on Twitter or read newspapers online.
A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.
To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.
Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show.
“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”
Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.
A server is a sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus a screen and keyboard, that contains chips to process data. The study sampled about 20,000 servers in about 70 large data centers spanning the commercial gamut: drug companies, military contractors, banks, media companies and government agencies.
“This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa,” said a senior industry executive who asked not to be identified to protect his company’s reputation. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway.”
These physical realities of data are far from the mythology of the Internet: where lives are lived in the “virtual” world and all manner of memory is stored in “the cloud.”
The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation.
Even running electricity at full throttle has not been enough to satisfy the industry. In addition to generators, most large data centers contain banks of huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries — many of them similar to automobile batteries — to power the computers in case of a grid failure as brief as a few hundredths of a second, an interruption that could crash the servers.
“It’s a waste,” said Dennis P. Symanski, a senior researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit industry group. “It’s too many insurance policies.”
JP Rangaswami: Information is food
How do we consume data? At TED@SXSWi, technologist JP Rangaswami muses on our relationship to information, and offers a surprising and sharp insight: we treat it like food.
JP Rangaswami thinks deeply (and hilariously) about disruptive data. Full bio »
An old farmer named Clyde had a car accident. In court, the trucking company’s fancy lawyer was questioning Clyde. “Didn’t you say at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine,’?” asked the lawyer.
Clyde responded, “Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I had just loaded my favorite mule, Bessie, into the……”
“I didn’t ask for any details,” the lawyer interrupted. “Just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, “I’m fine!’?”
Clyde said, “Well, I had just got Bessie into the trailer and was driving down the road….”
The lawyer interrupted again and said, “Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that at the scene of the accident, this man told the Highway Patrolman on the scene that he was just fine. Now several weeks after the accident he is trying to sue my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.”
By this time, the Judge was fairly interested in Clyde’s answer and said to the lawyer, “I’d like to hear what he has to say about his favorite mule, Bessie.”
Clyde thanked the Judge and proceeded, “Well… as I was sayin’, I had just loaded Bessie, my favorite mule, into the trailer and was drivin’ her down the highway when this huge semi ran the stop sign and smacked my truck right in the side. I was thrown into one ditch and Bessie was thrown into the other. I was hurtin’ real bad and didn’t want to move. However, I could hear ole Bessie moanin’ and groanin’. I knew she was in terrible shape just by her groans.
“Real soon a Highway Patrolman came on the scene. He could hear Bessie moanin’ and groanin’, too. So, he went over to her. After he looked at her, he took out his gun and shot her between the eyes. Then the Patrolman came across the road, gun in hand, looked at me, and said, ‘How are YOU feeling?’
“Now what the heck would you say?”
The hullabaloo surrounding this weekend’s 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic means a whole generation of youngsters is slowly realizing that the disaster was more than a figment of James Cameron’s imagination.
They did it for the simplest of reasons: adventure. Three friends, on a drunken dare, set out in a dinghy for a nearby island. But when the gas ran out and they drifted into barren waters, their biggest threat wasn’t the water or the ocean—it was each other
A crewman on a commercial tuna-fishing boat was the first to spot it: something shiny and metallic in the water off the ship’s bow. The crewman alerted the navigator, and the 280-foot San Nikunau slightly altered course to avoid a collision. As the ship came closer, the object revealed itself to be a small boat, an aluminum dinghy. It was late in the afternoon on November 24 of last year. The New Zealand–basedSan Nikunau was in open water, a couple of days out of Fiji, amid the vastness of the southern Pacific—an expanse the size of a dozen Saharas in which there are only scattered specks of land.
The dinghy, fourteen feet long and low to the water, was designed for traveling on lakes or hugging a shoreline. There was no way it should’ve been in this part of the Pacific. If the San Nikunau had passed a quarter mile to either side, likely no one would have noticed it. Anyway, it appeared empty, another bit of the ocean’s mysterious flotsam. But then, as the big ship was approaching the dinghy, something startling happened. From the bottom of the tiny boat, emerging slowly and unsteadily, rose an arm—a single human arm, skinny and sun-fried and waving for help.
There were, as it turned out, three people on the boat. Three boys. Two were 15 years old and the third was 14. They were naked and emaciated. Their skin was covered with blisters. Their tongues were swollen. They had no food, no water, no clothing, no fishing gear, no life vests, and no first-aid kit. They were close to death. They had been missing for fifty-one days.
It began, in the grand tradition of ill-considered ideas, with a group of boys and a bottle of booze—the most common of circumstances in the least common of places. The boys were gathered in their clubhouse—broken sofas, graffitied walls—near the end of the only road in the only village on the Pacific island of Atafu. Atafu is one of three atolls that make up the nation of Tokelau (which is not, technically, a nation but a territory of New Zealand). The total amount of land on Atafu is 1.4 square miles. Population: 524.
The nearest atoll, equally tiny, is fifty-seven miles to the south, well beyond the range of visibility. The closest significant land mass is Samoa, a twenty-eight-hour ferry ride away. There is no landing strip on Tokelau. There are also no dogs, prisons, lawyers, pavement, or soil—the land is mostly bits of broken coral. The highest elevation is fifteen feet. Coconuts and fish are the traditional diet, though the ferry, which comes once every two weeks, brings so much junk food these days that obesity and diabetes have become significant problems. From any point on Atafu’s shoreline, nothing can be seen but water, all the way to the horizon.
One of the boys in the clubhouse—by most accounts, the unofficial leader—was named Filo Filo. (It’s not uncommon in Tokelau to have the same first and last names.) Filo was tall and strong and exceptionally athletic. His dream was to play for the New Zealand All Blacks. Though his parents were both Tokelauan, Filo had lived his entire life away from the islands, mostly in Sydney, Australia, where his mother had moved after she’d separated from Filo’s father. But in 2007, Filo’s mother grew concerned about his poor grades and growing reputation as a troublemaker. As a sort of reform school, she sent him to Atafu to live with his dad, who in addition to being a fisherman—the profession of nearly every Tokelauan man—was also the local rugby coach. Filo became a star athlete on Atafu, but some people still thought of him, to use the Tokelauan word, as a palagi—a foreigner. One classmate called him a “wanna-be gangster.” He was, in truth, a city kid who had been exiled to one of the tiniest and most remote places on the planet.
Filo had become best friends with a boy named Samu Tonuia. They were both 15 and in the same class at school—a class of seven students. Samu, like Filo, was tall and muscular for his age and also an excellent rugby player. Otherwise, the two boys could not have been more different. Samu had never once in his life left Tokelau. It is customary in Tokelau to assign one child to care for elderly relatives, and while the rest of his family had moved to Australia, Samu lived on Atafu with his grandmother. He’d never been in an airplane or a restaurant or a movie theater. According to one classmate, Samu had been a decent student—until Filo arrived.
So there they were, Filo and Samu, the permanent foreigner and the ultimate local, a gang of two, sitting in their clubhouse along with a handful of other boys. It was October 3, 2010. They were drinking vodka, smoking cigarettes, telling stories. It was getting late.
Then someone brought up the tale of the teenagers. Five or six years previous, three teens had taken a boat without permission and broken one of the cardinal rules of Tokelauan society: They’d ventured into the open ocean without the escort of a tautai, a master fisherman. Atafu’s forty-two small islands encircle a gorgeous turquoise lagoon in which anyone can boat or swim. It’s the kiddie pool. The ocean is an unpredictable and occasionally violent place, and the title of tautai, bestowed by the island’s elders, is equivalent to a driver’s license. Even tautais do not venture far offshore.
But to teenage boys, in Atafu as in every pocket of the planet, rules are made to be broken. And the isolation of Atafu can at times be difficult to bear. There’s now satellite Internet service on the island, which only emphasizes how much fun everyone else is having. Filo told me that Atafu “felt like a prison.” The desire to escape can become overwhelming.
Which is what those teenagers did five or six years ago. They escaped, trying to reach some other place. Any other place. They didn’t make it. They were rescued after five days by the Tokelau ferry. They’d run out of gas but had plenty of food. Though they were severely punished by the elders, in Filo and Samu’s clubhouse they were heroes. And as a plastic jug of vodka was passed around, the old story soon morphed into a new idea. By the time the jug was finished, the idea had become a plan.
Etueni Nasau was also in the clubhouse. He’d listened intently to the story but had passed on the vodka. He wasn’t much of a drinker. Etueni (his name is pronounced ed-ween-aye) was, at 14, a year younger than Samu and Filo and a grade lower in school. He was also much smaller and not nearly as athletic. When I asked all three boys what they wanted to be when they grew up, Filo said “rugby player” and Samu said “rugby player” and Etueni said “surgeon.” Etueni was neither an outsider, like Filo, nor an insider, like Samu, but somewhere in between. He was born in New Zealand, spent his early childhood in Atafu, went to school in American Samoa, and then moved full-time to Atafu in 2008.
Hearing the story of the teens sparked something in Etueni. He’d always been a good student, a well-behaved boy. But he, too, was often frustrated with the truncated boundaries of life on a tiny atoll, his one square mile of world. “Its freekin hell” he once posted on Facebook. He also yearned to be more popular, to be thought of by the others in the clubhouse as a hero rather than a nerd. To have a grand adventure. And so almost on a whim, when the plans became serious—when Samu announced he’d be willing to steal his uncle’s new boat—and most everyone in the clubhouse began backpedaling from their bluster, Etueni finally spoke up. He said he was in.
A fascinating short film about how the now-iconic “Keep Calm and Carry On” WW2 propaganda poster went unseen by the public for decades before being discovered and distributed by a small secondhand bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland, called Barter Books.