Power struggle

When Tom Roberts oversaw the construction of an 836 square metre data centre for Trinity Health, a group of 44 hospitals, he thought the infrastructure would last four or five years. A little more than three years later, he's looking at adding another 280 square metres and re-engineering some of the existing space to accommodate rapidly changing power and cooling needs.

As in many organizations, Trinity Health's data centre faces pressures from two directions. Growth in the business and a trend towards automating more processes as server prices continue to drop have stoked the demand for more servers. Roberts says that as those servers continue to get smaller and more powerful, he can get up to eight times more units in the same space. But the power density of those servers has exploded.

"The equipment just keeps chewing up more and more watts per square metre," says Roberts, director of data centre services. That has resulted in challenges in meeting power-delivery and coolling needs and has forced some retrofitting.

"It's not just a build-out of space but of the electrical and the HVAC systems that need to cool these very dense pieces of equipment that we can now put in a single rack," Roberts says.

Power-related issues are already a top concern in the largest data centres, says Jerry Murphy, an analyst at Robert Frances Group. In a study his firm conducted in January, 41 percent of the 50 Fortune 500 IT executives surveyed identified power and cooling as problems in their data centres, he says.

Murphy also recently visited CIOs at six of the nation's largest financial services companies. "Every single one of them said their No. 1 problem was power," he says. While only the largest data centres experienced significant problems in 2005, Murphy expects many more to feel the pain this year as administrators continue to replenish older equipment with newer units that have higher power densities.

In large, multi-megawatt data centres, where annual power bills can easily exceed $US1 million, more-efficient designs can significantly cut costs. In many data centres, electricity now represents as much as half of operating expenses, says Peter Gross, CEO of EYP Mission Critical Facilities, a data centre designer. Increased efficiency has another benefit: in new designs, more-efficient equipment reduces capital costs by allowing the data centre to lower its investment in cooling capacity.

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