My brother sent me a fascinating article about "cloud computing" at Google et al. that relates a lot of nifty inside-ish info on the man behind the curtain... and he really is a wizard. The most interesting part to me, though, was about power consumption.
If it's necessary to waste memory and bandwidth to dominate the petascale era, gorging on energy is an inescapable cost of doing business. Ask.com operations VP Dayne Sampson estimates that the five leading search companies together have some 2 million servers, each shedding 300 watts of heat annually, a total of 600 megawatts. These are linked to hard drives that dissipate perhaps another gigawatt. Fifty percent again as much power is required to cool this searing heat, for a total of 2.4 gigawatts. With a third of the incoming power already lost to the grid's inefficiencies, and half of what's left lost to power supplies, transformers, and converters, the total of electricity consumed by major search engines in 2006 approaches 5 gigawatts.
That's an impressive quantity of electricity. Five gigawatts is almost enough to power the Las Vegas metropolitan area – with all its hotels, casinos, restaurants, and convention centers – on the hottest day of the year. So the annual operation of the world's petascale search machines constitutes a Vegas-sized power sump. In the next year or so, it could add a dog-day Atlantic City. Air-conditioning will be the prime cost and conundrum of the petascale era. As energy analysts Peter Huber and Mark Mills projected in 1999, the planetary machine is on track to be consuming half of all the world's output of electricity by the end of this decade.
Google's Hölzle noticed the high electric bills after taking his post in 1999. At 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, power dominated his calculus of costs. "A power company could give away PCs and make a substantial profit selling power," he says. (At The Dalles, the huge protuberances on top are not giant disk drives, climbing to the rooftop for a smoke while the RAM below does the work, but an array of eight hulking cooling towers.)
The struggle to find an adequate supply of electricity explains the curious emptiness that afflicts some 30 percent of Ask.com's square footage. Why is the second-fastest-growing search engine one-third empty? "We ran out of power before we ran out of space," says search operations manager James Snow, a ponytailed refugee from an IBM acquisition. Not only does the Verizon facility lack a cheap power source, it struggles to get any further power at all; designed for the more modest needs of Internet switching, the building has already maxed out the local grid. Consequently, Ask.com's Sampson has followed Google's trail to the Columbia River, where he's scoping out properties. Perhaps by moving farther up the river into the Washington headwaters he can get even cheaper power than Google will get in The Dalles.
Maybe they should build a datacenter on Mercury? There should be plenty of heavy metals readily available on the surface, and it's located down the sun's gravity well so it's easier to reach than Mars.
Bernardo says I'm behind the times and that Google is already planning to conquer the moon.