Turning the data center green

Analyst firm president says that green cannot be ignored any longer.

With all the fanfare for Al Gore, receiving an Oscar, Emmy and the Nobel Peace Prize all in 2007, one would think that global environmental concerns rank No. 1 on the list of "corporate social responsibility."

Unfortunately, economics and internal operations have often overridden environmental concerns in the past. But now, green cannot be ignored.

An obvious place to start is the IT data center. In 2006, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study, US data centers consumed 61 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity at a cost of US$4.5 billion. That is equivalent to the average power needs of 5.8 million households for a year.

On a global basis, 1.8 percent of all power inclusive of cooling is used by the data center. That extrapolates to a corporate cost of almost US$8 billion -- with almost 80 percent of that power being wasted!

Numerous studies exist on power consumption in the data center. An Emerson Network Power study found data-center power consumption broke down this way: 50 percent by air conditioning, 26 percent by servers/storage, 11percent by communications equipment, 10 percent by power-distribution equipment and 3 percent for the lighting.

A 2006 white paper from the American Power Conversion Corporation indicates that power consumption is approximately distributed 48 percent in cooling systems (33 percent chiller/cooling tower, 4 percent humidifier and 11 percent air conditioning); 30 percent IT equipment; and 22 percent electrical systems (16 percent UPS, 4 percent power distribution, 1 percent switching and 1 percent lighting).

Extensive research by IBM has uncovered a number of not too obvious environmental facts. With respect to data center equipment, one would expect storage to be the candidate for the "bad guy" award. The reality is that tape and disk storage produce the lowest heat load (watts/equipment per square foot).

Next on the list is 2U and larger compute servers, then high-density communications equipment, then 1U blade and custom compute servers and finally the "worst offender" -- extreme-density communications equipment. (That category includes routers/switches, PBXs, and appliances like firewalls and load balancers.)

IBM is not alone in identifying communications equipment as the worst offender in the data center. An independent study by storage vendor Hitachi Data Systems indicates that data-center power usage is distributed 25 percent for storage, 25 percent for servers and 50 percent for communications equipment.

Almost all major IT vendors including IBM and Cisco< have green initiatives aimed at the data center. Although similar in some respects, their approaches are markedly different.

One can understand why Cisco focuses on its product strengths to make green customer recommendations for virtualization; removal/replacement of older equipment; and equipment consolidation of discrete firewalls, SSL offload and load-balancing devices onto its switch/router platforms.

Internally, Cisco has established a goal to deliver 90 percent efficient power supplies for its equipment. It has also instituted global advice services for customers on how to improve data-center environmental efficiency using a variety of techniques from the simple -- "plug up unwanted holes" -- to the complex -- "district cooling" (for example, using local sources such as outside air for cooling).

IBM has taken another tactic using innovative analyses and technology to focus on the total data-center problem, beginning with a suite of services to measure, audit/diagnose, build, cool, virtualize and manage the green data center. To accomplish these services, IBM has developed tools for hot-spot measurement; power trending; server/storage power efficiency, variable storage assessment; etc.

To accelerate the green initiative, IBM has coupled these services with ROI-based recommendations. Using its own data centers and customers as test cases, it has uncovered a "gold mine" of (less than two-year ROI) hidden cost savings by greening the complete data center, including power distribution, cooling, lighting and IT equipment.

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One technology innovation that IBM uncovered is particularly intriguing -- the "cool battery," which increases chiller utilization by storing cold gathered during the night for use throughout the daylight hours.

IBM's next focal point was its own servers and storage. Energy-efficient variable-speed fans, power supplies, chips, compute server blades, storage arrays, solid-state memory replacement for local disk storage, etc. are all available in today's shipping equipment. Coupled with these green server/storage products is the capability to install rear-door heat exchangers on the equipment racks that will remove an additional 55 percent of generated heat.

Lastly, IBM has introduced its green software in the form of the Power Executive, a Tivoli-based management software suite that measures/trends power usage, service-level optimize/allocation/cap power usage and automation of energy management. As a stand-alone data-center management tool, this is important software, but IBM has taken it to another dimension by integrating with Tivoli's systems and networking-management software suite to offer a consolidated dashboard view of the data center. Power Executive integration can also occur with Tivoli's provisioning, workload scheduling/management, capacity planning, accounting, automation and intelligent utility networking-management software.

Alternatives can always exist for the green data center. The most prominent is relocation. Yahoo, Microsoft and Google are building massive data center complexes on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon for access to reliable, relatively inexpensive hydroelectric power. Google is building a massive data center in Eemshaven, Netherlands with access to hydroelectric, wind and tidal power. Cisco has built and is promoting data centers in Scotland where there is an abundance of renewable wind and tidal power.

Where to next? How about an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! Microsoft, Cisco and IBM are all on the list of corporations investigating the potential of establishing data centers in Iceland to be powered by very inexpensive renewable geothermal and hydroelectric power and cooled by free outside air.

The weakest link in the chain remains communications equipment. Current equipment heat/power problems can be addressed by an immediate data-center audit and resultant redistribution of communications equipment. Since any equipment rack can be cooled using a rear-door heat exchanger, use of that should be an immediate ROI-based green initiative in all corporations. Virtualization of compute servers, storage and network services is no longer an IT-analysis alternative but a green reality.

The age of copper wire-based connectivity and switching in the data center may be coming to an end. The green, energy-efficient, low-power alternative of fiber optics for low-latency connectivity now must be given its day. Low-cost, physical-layer fiber switches from such companies as Glimmerglass need to be migrated from the service provider world into the corporate data center.

As ridiculous as it may be, unless the IT industry in unison reacts now and delivers green products and corporations focus on green data-center environments, in the not too distant future, every corporation will be looking to relocate.

Dzubeck is president of Communications Network Architects, an industry analysis firm in Washington, D.C. E-mail him at fdzubeck@comnetarchDOTcom.