As 2015 comes to a close, data center professionals and pundits are offering their takes on the past year as well as what might be in store for 2016. Rather than focusing solely on the past year or offering predictions that are as likely as not to come true, however, I decided to take a look back at the past half-decade or so of Data Center Journal stories. In particular, this “retrospective” considers some of the main themes that have marked recent years in this publication’s effort to provide a holistic view of the industry. Numerous professionals have contributed invaluable insights into the technical and market details of data centers, but the overarching goal has been to offer a broader context for understanding these details. With that, here is a look back five-plus years of major themes that have colored the Data Center Journal’s coverage of the industry.

Energy Is King

The biggest theme in data centers is certainly energy—a facet of the industry that weaves through the business, technical, political and environmental aspects of operating a facility. Efforts to reduce energy consumption, and thereby reduce operating expenses, have driven a number of trends, ranging from virtualization to consolidation to improved cooling design (e.g., the use of free cooling, hot/cold-aisle containment, liquid cooling and so on). Big-name data center operators have made a sport of achieving (and boasting about) their ultra-low PUEs, sometimes in the 1.0–1.1 range. Yet these efforts have failed to placate some, who would prefer to see regulations that impose industry-wide efficiency standards.

But the energy situation overall is not exactly what one might expect from the occasionally shrill rhetoric. Energy consumption in the U.S., for instance, has largely plateaued since the year 2000 (perhaps uncoincidentally, about the time of the dot-com bust) according to Energy Information Administration data.

energy

No doubt part of the reason for this plateau is efficiency improvements, but another is likely economic factors. According to Federal Reserve data, the M2 money velocity (described as “the number of times one dollar is spent to buy goods and services per unit of time,” meaning that a higher value indicates that “more transactions are occurring between individuals in an economy”) peaked in the mid-1990s and began plummeting about the time of the dot-com crash. The decline continues to this day.

economy

Complicating the situation, the Jevons paradox suggests that efficiency improvements may actually increase consumption. Throw in a crashing oil price, and you have a bizarre energy picture that is difficult to decipher. Either way, however, data centers—even though their bite of energy consumption is growing—are not causing an uptick in overall energy use.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law has driven astonishing increases in computing power, but its days appear to be numbered. The demise of this semiconductor-manufacturing trend has been predicted for decades, but only recently have signs begun to indicate that the end is truly near. Even Intel has all but thrown in the towel on traditionally defined Moore’s Law scaling. An end to Moore’s Law doesn’t mean an end to innovation, of course, but it would mean that the “free” performance and/or energy-efficiency improvements of finer process technologies will become scarcer.

Fundamentally, a transistor can’t be smaller than the size of the atoms that constitute it, so Moore’s Law has a fairly hard physical limit. But more important than physics is economics: regardless of whether something is possible, practicality (i.e., cost) is a much more difficult barrier to overcome. That economic limit may burst the bubble of many perennial technology optimists who see no end to increases in compute power.

Alternative Energy

In addition to pursuing miniscule PUEs, many big-name data center operators are also dabbling in energy production—particularly, alternative energy. For instance, companies like Apple and Google are investing heavily in solar and wind plants to offset the consumption of their facilities. The irony, however, is that these intermittent sources are perhaps the worst fitted for running a data center, owing to their inability to provide steady power as well as the lack of a good, large-scale energy-storage technology. Moreover, so-called green energy sources don’t seem so green when one considers the mining and manufacturing processes that go into producing the infrastructure. Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that every activity has an environmental impact, and the key isn’t so much to be green, but to be wise.

Government Spying

It’s an old joke among Internet veterans: some alphabet-soup agency is watching everything you download, say in a chat room or read on the web. The Edward Snowden revelations, far from being a surprise, simply provided concrete evidence for what many already knew or suspected. Unfortunately, those revelations were insufficient to garner change, as so much of society is too afraid of the latest bogeyman (yesterday the communist, today the terrorist, tomorrow the who-knows-what). In a society where fear trumps even common sense, there is little will to fight government policies that come under the “security” umbrella. Thanks in part to its corporate partners, the U.S. government has ensured that no electronic communication is safe from prying eyes. But thankfully in this case, bureaucracies are slow and incompetent—the surveillance state is encumbered by its own weight, and the clock is ticking.

Talent Shortages—Or Not

Claims of a shortage of “qualified” talent for various technical positions are nothing new—they’ve been the staple of politicians and executives for decades. Counterclaims have become more strident, however. From the fact that half of all STEM graduates go into other fields to the lack of a sharp wage increase to signal a true dearth, at least some evidence suggests that the ostensible shortage of technology candidates is akin to a shortage of cheap Ferraris—in other words, supply and demand are right about where they should be given the associated costs. A dearth of cheap stuff isn’t the same as a shortage.

Security Blues

A growing story over recent years has been security, with major breaches apparently accelerating. The year 2015 in particular seemed to suggest that the bad guys have the upper hand, with neither business nor government apparently capable of repelling persistent attacks. Not only did many consumers and patients find out the hard way about these weaknesses, but so did government employees. Of no help are government agencies—such as the NSA—that buy information about security flaws but fail to disclose them to the public, exacerbating the problem. One long-term question is whether the increasing complexity of computer networks will be limited by security flaws, or whether these networks can deliver enough protection to outweigh the risks.

Diversity Is the New Religion

As if the technical, economic and political challenges facing the data center industry weren’t enough, social pressures are also coming from certain quarters. Specifically, major data center operators like Apple, Facebook, Google and so on have succumbed to the quasi-religious rituals of diversity-mongers, who regularly demand confession of sins (not enough employees of this or that color, gender, gender identity, height, weight, and on and on) and penance in the form of hiring on the basis of unrelated biological, behavioral or other characteristics.

The proponents of this religion used the bludgeon of judging not by skin color, but by content of character—until they achieved the upper hand in the C-suite, at which point that credo became too much of an impediment to their goals. Like the all-powerful state of George Orwell’s 1984, these tech totalitarians can abide nary a dissenting thought. In response to a gaffe by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women said, “Until we change the mindset of executives and managers so that things like this are never said, women in tech will continue to face seemingly insurmountable hurdles as they struggle for equal representation in the field and to close the pay gap.” In other words, this quest for “justice” requires complete, total, unthinking and unquestioning assent to orthodoxy. Perhaps it just goes to show that contrary to popular opinion, we’re all religious at heart.

Health-Care IT: Beneficial Technology, Misguided Goals

The health-care industry has major problems. One can’t fault IT for trying to solve those problems with technology, except that such a goal is all but impossible. The problems with health care stem from overregulation and other government meddling, not from a lack of EMR technology, telemedicine or anything else—although those technologies may be beneficial if allowed to mature on their own terms. Unfortunately, there’s little technology can do when the reigning dogma of health care is that insuring everyone (and thereby increasing demand for a limited supply) will reduce prices. Tech doesn’t trump stupidity.

Conclusions

IT and data centers have come a long way even in recent years, improving service offerings, energy efficiency and much more. Many challenges remain—some technical or economic and some the result of human failings. Other themes the Data Center Journal has covered that pose difficulties include education, intellectual property (patents) and the economy. As the industry seeks to address these challenges, technologies will come and go, and some will boast great things only to fail at delivering on their promise. No doubt the next five years will be as interesting as the past five.

Leading article image courtesy of Dr-text under a Creative Commons license

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