Why Google Won’t Throw Away Its Data Center Gear

September 14, 2016, 4:28 PM UTC
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The Google logo is seen on display at the company's headquarters October 18, 2007 in Mountain View, California. Google reported today that third quarter profits surged 46 percent to $1.07 billion, or $3.38 per share, compared to $733.4 million, or $2.36 per share one year ago.
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For years Google has invested in making its massive data centers around the world, running services like Gmail and Search, as energy efficient and as green as possible. Now the search engine giant plans to take that commitment a step further and pledges to stop throwing away any of the aging and broken computing gear inside its data centers.

On Wednesday, Google announced the new commitment in a blog post, saying the company plans to achieve zero waste to landfill for its global data center operations.

Essentially Google will use the computing gear, from servers to networking devices, inside its data centers as long as possible, and when hardware has problems it will either be fixed with parts reused from other machines, or recycled when the gear can’t be used anymore. The small percentage (less than 10%) that can’t be reused or recycled will be incinerated with the associated energy recovered.

Google (GOOG) is in a unique position to hit such a goal. The company makes its own custom servers and computing equipment and can design its gear to both operate for longer periods of time and to be able to be refurbished and recycled more easily than standard computing hardware.

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For years Google has designed its computing gear for optimal efficiency. It’s crammed as much performance, and as little energy, as possible into both its servers and in data center buildings themselves. The company says it’s saved over $1 billion due to just energy efficiency in data centers.

That design puts Google in a prime position to create a system that can continuously monitor and repair servers using a stock of already refurbished parts. Google says that last year 75% of the spare parts it used to fix data center hardware came from refurbished hardware.

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If servers can’t be fixed from Google’s stock of parts, the servers are dismantled and their parts are reused to fix other servers. Google says 19% of its servers last year were re-manufactured machines. Anything that Google can’t fix or reuse, is either sold onto the secondary market, or recycled.

For Google it’s not just an effort in sustainability, it’s also a way to save money. Because the company controls its own gear manufacturing, data center building design, and even energy generation—and because it operates on such a large scale—it can leverage the reuse and recycling efforts to lower costs. In comparison, a company that has to buy computing gear from other manufacturers wouldn’t as easily have the savings designed into its supply chain.

Google’s efforts are the latest way that Internet giants are looking to act more environmentally responsible. Apple, Facebook, and data center operator Switch are also aggressively building green data centers.

These companies are taking these measures for a variety of reasons. Partly it’s to better control their energy and supply chains, and thus lower costs. It’s partly a way to attract future employees, particularly young people that have a growing interest in sustainability. Finally, it’s also a way to maintain their brands; Google and Apple are some of the most recognizable consumer tech brands out there.

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