Down on the Server Farm

Legislation seeking to limit pollution and energy use by data centers in San Francisco may curb economic development in the city.

by News Staff / August 31, 2001
High-tech companies use the Internet to provide customers with a clean, insulated environment where they can make purchases, do research and chat with friends and strangers.

But behind every antiseptic Web page lies its real-world technological counterpart; and all too often the servers that run Web sites and online services arent nearly as spic-and-span as the pages they bring to life.

Thats especially true in large cities where Internet companies either use servers owned by other firms or hire such firms to house their servers remotely. These server "farms," also known as data centers, use enormous amounts of energy relative to their size. Exodus Communications operations in the San Francisco Bay area, for instance, consume as much electricity as 12,000 houses.

Whats more, server farms cant risk power outages, or the consequent lack of access to the Internet. Therefore, they rely on diesel backup generators, which typically generate more pollution than power plants.

Mitigating Damage
These concerns have led a number of city officials to rethink how their municipalities can accommodate the needs of high-tech firms while ensuring that the resulting energy use and pollution doesnt spiral out of hand. San Francisco, for example, recently passed temporary legislation that requires new server farms to apply for conditional use permits. To receive the permit, a server farm needs to demonstrate that it has minimized air pollution from its backup generators and designed its building to be energy efficient. The Board of Supervisors is now considering permanent guidelines for future server farms.

"The regulation for the conditional use process is pretty balanced and is typical for a lot of development, so were not adding something that developers arent familiar with," said Greg Asay, a legislative aide for San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who sponsored the legislation. San Francisco has 16 server farms in existence or in development that total two million square feet, and many of them lie in Maxwells district.

The legislation was driven by health and energy concerns, said Asay, "and the energy concerns have a health impact as well. We have, in California, a mad rush to build power plants, including here in San Francisco, and if the demand [for electricity] keeps increasing, were going to be stuck with a lot of power plants."

Residents of Maxwells district, which also contains San Franciscos two power plants, already suffer disproportionately high asthma rates. The fear was that without this legislation, their problems would only get worse, whether from the construction of new power plants or from the exhaust of diesel generators that carry server farms through Californias increasingly common blackouts.

The health concerns also became a pressing issue due to residential growth around the farms themselves. "Its tough to find a place where theres not someone [already living nearby]. Even within industrial areas, theres been massive growth in the last few years of these live/work lofts [converted warehouse offices exempt from most housing laws]," said Asay. "Even when an area is not zoned for housing, you still have housing across the street. Its tough to find a whole part of town that we can section off as industrial."

Server Farm Repellant
If San Francisco cant do so, though, server farms might go elsewhere. "You need to be in the proximity of those who own and use the servers, preferably within about 20 minutes to a half-hour, so that if theres a problem, the user will be able to reach the data center very quickly," said John Mogannam, senior vice president of engineering for U.S. DataPort in San Jose. "If somebody wants to build a data center [in San Francisco] and knows that he has to jump through hoops, it wont be hard to find a place in Oakland, South San Francisco, Millbrae or wherever else space is available."

"We actually like the [San Francisco] regulations because it will encourage companies to come locate on our campus," said Mogannam, referring to his companys 174-acre, 10-warehouse complex thats currently under construction in San Jose. "As far as the city of San Francisco is concerned, it will discourage companies from locating data centers there."

Asay isnt so sure. After all, server farms can actually be accessed from anywhere in the world; its mere habit that keeps them close to the companies they serve. Whats more, he says, "Even if San Francisco is first, it wont be long before the rest of the country enacts these types of regulations."

U.S. DataPort, for instance, will be employing a natural gas cogeneration plant in its new San Jose facility at the insistence of both the city and the state. "It eliminates the diesels completely," said Mogannam.

The fallout from San Franciscos new regulations probably wont be apparent in the near future. "The economic downturn is giving us time to figure out whether there will be a ripple effect from the legislation," said Asay. "We have a lot of permits already in, but they might not build out for a couple of years. Right now, theres not much of a demand."