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The Case for "Greener" Data Centers

Many large IT organizations face escalating data-center energy costs that may soon account for more than half of their IT budget (where only several years ago it comprised less than 10%). Driven by an increase in computing demand, in IT equipment power density, and energy cost, along with the availability of power to meet computing demands, many will soon need to retrofit existing facilities, build new ones, or risk running out of their capacity for growth.

Many IT organizations see the handwriting on the wall. “It’s the ultimate value proposition,” said Rockwell Bonecutter, managing partner for the Accenture Data Center Technology and Operations Practice in America. “Corporations can now do the right thing with their data centers both for the environment and for their shareholders.”

Data center power consumption has become a growing global concern on both a business and environmental level. Processor power, semiconductor density, and the resulting heat generated and power consumed have had a dramatic effect on both the environment and the cost of running a datacenter.

Not too long ago, servers didn’t draw much power and their density in data centers was not significant enough to create concern. That has changed: high-density computer equipment like blade servers require 10 times the amount of watts-per-rack on a connected load, compared to just a few years ago, causing power consumption to rise faster than the average data center can accommodate. Add this to those non-IT devices that consume data-center power, like transformers, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), power wiring, fans, air conditioners, pumps, humidifiers, and lighting, and the recent prediction by Gartner analysts that half of the world’s data centers will run out of power by the end of 2008 starts to make sense.

Businesses across industries are taking note of the renewed emphasis on “green computing,” where historically they tended to have a far greater interest in the initial cost of a server rather than energy savings over the server’s lifetime. According to an independent study conducted by chip manufacturer AMD, more than 80% of IT and data-center managers today say they are concerned with power consumption and cooling issues.

They should be. Energy consumed by data centers in the U.S. has doubled over the last five years. Each year, U.S. data centers now consume as much power as the amount generated by five power plantsto such a degree that the federal government is considering regulations and tax credits (as have certain states like California).

“The issue of power and heat generation and dissipation is a factor in every project we discuss,” said Bonecutter, who sees green computing as a major trend over the next three to five years. “It’s always on the client’s mind when considering data-center design, layout and execution. After all, it impacts on the environment and the company’s ability to save money through energy costs and possible tax credits, plus offers the company the public relations benefit of being viewed as an environmental-friendly company.”

Bonecutter and other green computing experts offer the following tips for making data centers more environmentally friendly and cost effective:
  • Use more efficient processors. Chip sets that require far less power, which equates to less heat and electricity, are now available. Chips made by AMD and other manufacturers are improving processing power as much as three to four times while cutting out as much as 75% of power and cooling costs. This takes on even greater importance considering that for every kilowatt of energy consumed by a server, approximately another kilowatt is needed to cool it.

  • Take advantage of virtualization to maximize use of existing servers. Through virtualization technology, 100 servers can be consolidated into, say, 20 on the floor, resulting in significant HVAC, power, electricity, and footprint costs. In addition, utility companies have begun giving rebates for each server companies eliminate through virtualization.

  • Install a more efficient cooling system. Newer cooling systems rely on sensors that detect air temperature and send cooling to the needed areas.

  • Reconfigure the system. Advances in PDUs (power distribution units) permit distribution of power into different quadrants of the data center, which can spread the hotter stuff around the data center to eliminate hot spots and take better advantage of HVAC.

  • Review your assets. Consider shutting down servers that are no longer necessary. This step alone can cut power consumption in some organizations by as much as 30%.

Fortunately, the costs of green computing to an organization will be recouped quickly. “It’s not unusual to see a 1.3 year to 1.9 year ROI,” says Bonecutter. “These initiatives pay for themselves. It’s realistic that you could generate a 30–40% savings in the first year, and use those savings to fund the rest of the consolidation and virtualization in order to have a positive cash flow within two years. Again, it’s a win-win situation.”