SAN JOSE – When a rolling blackout hit the neighborhood of Equinix Inc.’s data center, the hundreds of computers inside hummed along unperturbed, the lights didn’t blink and the temperature remained a steady 68 degrees.
Thanks to a warning from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and constant monitoring of the power supply, diesel generators fired up in time to maintain the facility that serves some of the world’s largest Web sites.
Electricity is the lifeblood of the Internet Age, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the power-hungry data centers that connect backbone networks and provide a home for thousands of servers.
The Internet’s growth as a marketplace and demands for reliability have led to an explosion in the number of server-filled data centers nationwide, particularly in electricity-starved California with its abundance of high-tech companies and the data highways that make up the core of the Internet.
“We have a very tight ship here where we’re watching literally every electron that passes through,” said Jay Adelson, chief technology officer of Equinix, whose clients include IBM Corp. and Yahoo! Inc.
Data centers offer services ranging from a fast links to the Internet for companies to complete Web management solutions.
With racks of servers, air conditioning and support systems, they can draw from 10 to 65 megawatts of electricity, enough to power on average 10,000 to 65,000 homes.
It is estimated that the equipment needed to power the Internet consumes from 1 percent to as high as 13 percent of national demand. Koomey believes the actual figure is at the low end.
Because most data centers are built to withstand terrorist attacks and other calamities, California’s rolling blackouts have not posed a serious threat to the traffic they process daily.
Equinix, which has six centers around the nation, has enough fuel to power its generator for 48 hours at full load — or a week or more when usage is less. It also has contracts with two diesel suppliers.
The company also has contingency plans in place to enter into energy contracts or construct its own power plant, Adelson said.
Exodus Communications Inc., recently announced it would work with General Electric to construct a natural-gas-powered generator at one of its Santa Clara facilities.
Planning started last year, before the energy crisis exploded, said chief executive officer Ellen Hancock. The company sees the plant as a way to strengthen its reliability beyond battery and diesel backups.
Centers are limited in what they can do to conserve power. Server processors are sensitive to the slightest changes in electricity. The other big expense — air conditioning — is necessary to prevent meltdown in the racks.
Exodus, like most firms, dims the lights when possible. Center operators note that by centralizing servers, they use less power than if their clients ran separate server farms, each with its own air conditioning and support.
But the equipment in data centers could be more efficient — and some companies plan to introduce servers that draw considerably less power.
FiberCycle, RLX Technologies Inc. and others are planning to launch servers using lower-energy chips developed by Transmeta Corp.
Transmeta’s Crusoe chip can adjust its speed – measured in megahertz – according to demand, and thus decrease power consumption.
“The great thing about Transmeta’s technology is that it allows you to throttle the CPU (central processing unit) down enough megahertz to handle what’s happening on the server at that time, and nothing more,” said Chris Hipp, RLX’s co-founder and chief technology officer.