IT Is Now Officially An Energy Hog, And Retail Is Part Of The Problem

How much electricity is all of retail's e-commerce, big-data analytics and mobile shopping devouring? No one has calculated that, but a report out this month argues that all IT now consumes about 10 percent of the world's electricity. Let's be clear: This report was sponsored by coal trade groups and is titled "The Cloud Begins With Coal," and its calculation includes the electricity used to manufacture everything from mainframes to phones to chips, so that 10 percent number may be a stretch. But even adjusting for that, IT is swallowing a lot of juice—and retail may be a big part of the increase.

That's because retail has ramped up IT use (and spending) dramatically over the past decade or so. Most industries have scaled up their existing IT use, but e-commerce and large-scale analytics represent completely new IT costs. One result is that costs haven't been well contained, because without historical numbers for comparison, no one had any idea how much spending was reasonable or how much they could or should be cut. But increasingly it's looking like the answer is simple: Whatever it is, it's too high.

Case in point: REI, the 129-store outdoor recreation chain that just overhauled its data center near Seattle. The chain "knew for years" that the data center wasn't very energy efficient, according to an Internet Retailer story last week. But after a local utility picked up the cost of an energy audit and threw in some subsidies for improvements, the retailer cut its consumption by 1.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

How much does that translate to on the budget? It's hard to say because electricity in Washington State is cheaper than average, thanks to a mix of conventional and hydropower generation. But even at six cents per kilowatt-hour, that's still $100,000 a year. More important, the data-center remodel just addressed cooling—moving machines around and replacing some conventional air conditioning with water cooling from nearby Puget Sound. REI didn't change anything to reduce the source of all that heat: actual IT operations.

That's where retail IT is going to have to look next, and it brings us back to that coal-sponsored report (in fairness, "The Cloud Begins With Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Hydro, Wind And Maybe A Little Solar" doesn't roll so trippingly off the tongue). It includes the kind of factoids we all expect from this kind of thing: For example, using a smartphone to watch an hour of video online consumes more electricity than two new refrigerators use in a week, and on average a single rack of servers currently requires more power than an entire home.

How do you cut that consumption? Your choices are more efficient cooling or less heat in the first place.How do you cut that consumption? You can make your cooling more efficient. Or you can use more efficient servers that produce less heat, which saves electricity on both ends—less energy wasted as heat by the CPU, less AC required to get rid of it.

But there's a reason that Intel's CPUs tend to run hotter than alternatives—they trace their design back to a simpler time when speed and backwards-compatibility mattered and heat didn't. Being able to run mainstream Windows or Intel Linux software means you're stuck with some inefficiency. Emulating that software on more efficient architectures like ARM won't work, because the emulation loses all the efficiency gain.

Of course, you could offload some of that to the cloud—which pushes the problem off on your cloud provider, but puts you in the path of outages and price hikes if the provider can't manage energy consumption any better than you can.

There's one other approach, and it may be time for retail IT to start thinking about it, before e-commerce and big analytics get locked down as legacy applications. That's to see how much CPU time (and heat) can be cut by more efficient software.

There are two problems here. It's been an IT truism for decades that speeding up an application by rewriting the software is hard and expensive, while speeding it up by waiting 18 months and swapping in twice-as-fast hardware is cheap and easy. Thanks to Moore's Law, IT departments stopped writing tight loops to squeeze out those last few CPU cycles many years ago. Maybe it's time to rethink that approach. With better tools, tighter code might run faster and cheaper, and possibly be easier to write and maintain.

The other problem is another decades-old truism: Every year, hardware gets faster, and software gets fatter to soak up those extra cycles. Microsoft and application software vendors have never fought that trend because fatter software serves the interests of their hardware partners, who want to keep selling customers new PCs and servers every few years.

But now Microsoft may have a reason to keep software lean: It's now in the cloud business, which means when it's selling software as a service, fat software is less profitable to run than lean software.

Whether retailers' data centers will benefit from any slimming down there is debatable. But there's no sign that retail IT is going to stop growing, and squeezing waste out of server rooms is no longer a public-relations matter of "going green." If electricity demand keeps going up, prices will follow—and retailers can either chop IT energy use or start shoveling a lot more coal.