Green Attack On Facebook: Unfair, But Could It Help?
Greenpeace’s campaign unfairly targets Facebook’s very efficient data centre. But, Peter Judge asks, is changing behaviour about fairness?
Facebook has responded to criticism of its data centre strategy – and it seems Greenpeace isn’t being fair. But maybe that’s not the point.
The Greenpeace campaign has got legs. The environmental campaigner has asked Facebook to “unfriend” coal, after it signed a long-term power deal with a PacificCorp, a utility that makes the majority of its power from coal. Facebook apparently doesn’t have a public green policy, and Greenpeace says it’s not as green as Yahoo or Google.
The campaign shifted up a gear when Facebook announced plans to double the size of its Oregon data centre, with Greenpeace’s executive director getting involved, and half a million Facebook users joining a group asking Facebook to “unfriend” coal.
But how fair is the criticism?
A very efficient data centre
Facebook is upset about it, because its Oregon data centre is actually very efficient. It uses free-air and cooling, as well as evaporative cooling, a method also used by Microsoft. It has no mechanical chillers, which are normally the most significant consumers of electric power in a data centre, apart from the IT equipment. It has even been described by one eWEEK journalist as very environmentally friendly.
This design has allowed Facebook to build a data centre with PUE (power usage effectiveness) of 1.15, which is better than the current best-practice figure of 1.2, and not that far from the PUE of 1.08, which Capgemini claims makes its Swindon data centre the most efficient in the world. The company also says it is using the computers themselves more efficiently than other people, addressing the factors beyond PUE that can improve power usage.
Facebook’s response makes the very good point that PUE depends on climate. A data centre located somewhere “temperate” (or cold and miserable) is automatically more efficient. Hence facilities in places like Swindon, Ireland and Iceland can do well – and apparently also in Oregon.
“In selecting Oregon, we chose a region that offers a uniquely dry and temperate climate,” says Facebook’s statement. The ability to get by without mechanical chillers more than offsets the fact that some of the electricity comes from coal, Facebook says. “If we located the data centre most other places, we would need mechanical chillers, use more energy, and be responsible for more overall carbon in the air — even if that location was fueled by more renewable energy.”
Facebook muddies the water a bit with some rather silly comments about the way power providers mix generating sources. “It is simply untrue to say that we chose coal as a source of power,” it says. It is obviously true that the company did choose a power provider that uses mostly coal.
Facebook also waffles a bit about how many electrons in the power supply “come from” a given source, which doesn’t really relate to how electricity works.
But on the whole it is clear that, in looking for a green scapegoat, Greenpeace has come up with a strange candidate, because Greenpeace doesn’t really understand concepts like PUE. Facebook’s biggest crime seems to be that its PR people don’t understand electricity, and its electricity people don’t really understand PR. At least not as well as Google with its wind energy. But then, Facebook really doesn’t understand PR at all, given its continued mishandling of the privacy issue.
The data centre community is overwhelmingly on Facebook’s side, describing Greenpeace’s intervention in terms such as “a drive-by shooting” and “hypocrticial” given Greenpeace’s own failure to use clean power for its IT.
However, there could be a positive side to this. Public campaigns don’t always get the right people. Commercial boycotts have changed countries, even if some of the commercial companies they hit weren’t always to blame for the politics (was Barclays Bank really “responsible” for apartheid?).
The most likely result here, one would hope, is that Facebook swallows its pride, makes new moves towards using sustainable power, at the same time as re-presenting its existing moves, in the hope that Greenpeace will understand better this time.
In the end, hopefully Greenpeace – along the large number of people it influences – gets a better picture of how data centre energy works, and Facebook gets a better idea of the importance of not just building efficient data centres, but sharing that experience and campaigning to make sure others do their part as well.