Data Centers: Making Record Black Friday Online Shopping Smarter for All

By Tom Elowson, Data Center Specialist on November 28, 2017
Tom Elowson
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Black Friday 2017 once again experienced record online sales of $7.9 billion as millions of Americans skipped the crowds to shop from the convenience of their homes using their computers and mobile devices. The latter also broke a record: 40% of this year’s Black Friday online purchases were made from a mobile device. None of these figures accounts for ‘Cyber Monday’ results.

We associate shopping online with expedience and ease. Online stores, from giants like Amazon to boutiques like Etsy, master the art of providing seamless online experiences that let shoppers quickly find the things they are looking for and buy them with the click of a button. The simplicity behind online shopping experiences is made possible by thousands of data centers around the world that process the zettabytes of information necessary to support e-commerce without a glitch. (For comparison, one zettabyte (ZB) of data is equivalent to one trillion gigabytes; 16.3ZB of data is created each year, according to IDC.) A single second of downtime translates into millions of dollars in lost revenue for companies and frustration for their customers. Keeping the electricity reliably flowing in the data centers that power our online lives is no easy feat, as data centers consume around 2% of all electricity in the U.S.

Shop more online and play more offline.

Data Centers Have Never Been Smarter

Relentless optimization and innovation are crucial for the data centers that host the world’s most active websites such as Amazon, Alibaba, and eBay. For example, ‘Singles Day’ held annually on November 11 in China is now the largest commerce day in the world. Organized by Alibaba, this year’s event involved more than 200,00 brands that generated in excess of $25.3 billion in sales across 250 countries and regions—nearly twice the combined revenue of last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday events (which totaled $12.8 billion). This holiday season in North America, our shopping experience and the amount of electric power required to process our purchases are more efficient than ever before.

A recent article by e-Commerce Platforms explores some of the tactics that make seamless experiences possible for the top 50 online retailers, including “their flawless design, great customer service, unique ideas, or just because they deliver an unforgettable experience to their visitors.” After all, it takes much less effort to abandon a site that does not meet our expectations than to walk out of a brick and mortar store.

The less visible result of optimization relates to the energy that powers the data centers that host these websites. As our always-connected lives continue to expand, so do the energy requirements to keep the data flowing. Last year, Fortune wrote an article that highlighted how the “efforts by some of the world’s largest Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon to reduce the amount of energy their data centers consume is now bearing fruit.” They referenced a comprehensive analysis of ten years of data center research published by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which points out “the number of data centers has grown rapidly over the past several years to power our connected devices and always-on lifestyles. But the energy needed to support that growth has actually been flat.”

Specifically, their report found “electricity consumption by data centers nationwide, after rising rapidly for more than a decade, started to plateau in 2010 and has remained steady since at just under 2 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption.” Their numbers reveal, “From 2010 to 2014, consumption increased by about 4 percent, and from 2014 to 2020 it is projected to increase another 4 percent. This is in contrast to a 90-percent increase from 2000 to 2005 and a 24-percent increase from 2005 to 2010.”

Smart Design and Technology Behind Power Efficiency

The optimization tactics related to the shopping experiences that contributed to this past Black Friday’s online and mobile sales records come mainly from user interface (UI) design and machine learning techniques. Whereas the optimization techniques that continue to make data centers more energy-friendly come from advances in both design and sustainable power-generation technologies, including wind, solar and hydrogen.

Last month, we wrote a post that explored some of the most creative design approaches data centers around the world have taken to save energy. The article highlighted natural ways of cooling and ventilation, such as OVH Roubaix 4 in France that uses no air conditioning to cool servers, to Yahoo! whose data center consumes 40% less electricity based on a design inspired by chicken coops. The progressive design techniques behind these two examples represent the evolution of data centers—from simple warehouse-style facilities to efficient buildings made to lower both energy costs and the environmental impact that comes from traditional energy use.

The other side of energy efficiency comes from clean energy production. Data centers are rapidly adopting renewable energy, including wind, solar, and hydrogen for greater efficiency and uptime. A growing mix of sustainable energy sources helps retailers like Amazon and Walmart meet the demands for environmentally friendly operations that come from their customers. Equally important is the fact that sustainable energy sources are often designed for energy production off the grid, which increases data center uptime by reducing stress on the electricity grids that feed them. It is now common to find solar panels, wind turbines, and even fuel cells complementing the energy sources of data centers around the world, especially the largest ones that are responsible for the biggest share of efficiency increases.

More Sustainable Shopping All Around

Better online experiences help us to spend less time finding what we are looking for and reduce the time we spend shopping online. This optimization is augmented by the smarter use of design and power technologies, which means that holiday shopping is increasingly more sustainable—even if we ignore the thousands of driving hours saved by purchasing what we want from our devices.

Shop with ease this holiday season and don’t forget to give back. Today is Give Back Tuesday, also powered by easy and energy-efficient technology!

About the Author

Tom Elowson is a cloud pioneer and data center industry expert. In 1999, Tom co-founded the ASP Industry Consortium with Traver Kennedy (Citrix), Microsoft, and Cisco where he helped to recruit 700 global ISVs to start the ground-breaking initiative towards subscription-based software (now known as SaaS).

 

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