Data centers, often nondescript from the outside, are more important than many people realize. They are the guts of the cloud—that magical-sounding place where all your data is kept safe. But while the Internet may seem ephemeral from the vantage point of your computer, those data centers are actually consuming an enormous amount of energy to deliver your email, tweets, and status updates.
Large companies like Google are notoriously secretive about their data centers, ostensibly because of concerns about privacy and security. But in the wake of a New York Times series on how data centers gobble up huge amounts of energy, Google has decided to open the virtual doors to eight of its data centers, so we can see exactly what is behind our data (and maybe, if it’s cool and tech-y, we won’t care so much about the energy gobbling).
It’s not something visible in the images, but Google has actually been making strides in data center energy efficiency—the company’s efficiency information is viewable here.
The data centers are nothing if not futuristic. Wired had the opportunity to visit Google’s data center in Lenoir, North Carolina. Writer Steven Levy describes it:
We have passed through the heavy gate outside the facility, with remote-control barriers evoking the Korean DMZ. We have walked through the business offices, decked out in Nascar regalia. (Every Google data center has a decorative theme.) We have toured the control room, where LCD dashboards monitor every conceivable metric. Later we will climb up to catwalks to examine the giant cooling towers and backup electric generators, which look like Beatle-esque submarines, only green.
This is where your Google-related data lives. Every time you perform a search or send a Gmail, some part of this data center goes to work. That requires power, which leads to emissions. Data centers also generate heat. To keep the entire center from melting, Google has to use the massive cooling towers that Levy mentions. Those also require power to keep cool: more emissions.
Hopefully, the search giant’s continued move towards data center transparency will inspire other companies to do the same. Without transparency, it’s hard to figure out best practices.