Going Green in the Data Center

By Pam Baker

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The term “Green IT” summons two flights of thought: greenback savings and back to green environmental impact. But make no mistake, the pecking order is clear: “This is about doing what is right for the business, and the benefit to the environment, that is an added bonus,” said Jody Cefola, chief marketing officer at IBM Global Technology Services, Site and Facilities Services.


Lest you think IBM is taking a cold hearted stance on global warming, consider that tightly belted budgets have no room for warm and fuzzy frills. In the shrinking world of IT resources, from staff to cash, there is little room for a costly bout of conscience. Today, it is most certainly survival of the fittest and if green doesn’t fit, it won’t survive.


But that’s the thing about going green—because there is a real business case for its benefits this trend will quickly become an Evergreen issue.


Paul Strong, distinguished research scientist at virtual commerce giant eBay, said building more energy efficient infrastructure components and being able to power and cool them efficiently will not only remain important but “will almost certainly grow in importance.” This fact, driven home by rocketing fuel costs, is driving innovation and change in areas ranging from power conversion and transmission, to data center layout and cooling, to data center location, to building and structure design and facilities.


But, according to Strong, to truly be “green” requires that businesses are also able to maximize their efficiency in terms of delivering their services using the absolute minimum resources required; which ultimately means divesting much of the physical IT infrastructure as it is known today. Think cloud or grid computing, outsourcing IT and software as a service (SaaS).


“To be truly effective one has to be able to link everything together and understand how everything contributes to value and cost,” he said.


“Everything” also includes taking technology outside the data center green, as well. John Ragsdale, vice president of Research at the Service & Support Professionals Association (SSPA), the largest and most influential industry trade group for technology service and support professionals, said the categories the association is closely looking at now are “virtual support centers such as home-based employees, field service avoidance, and field service optimization as each relates to gas consumption, emissions and contributions to a corporation’s carbon footprint.”


As these issues are universal, Bill Kosik, energy and sustainability leader, EYP Mission Critical Facilities at HP, said the business case for green could just as easily include increasing market share by taking an aggressive stance on minimizing the impact on the environment as it could include tactical upgrades to optimize energy use.


“The big unknown is how future regulatory involvement will impact business technology,” warns Kosik. “Since data centers will demand the lion’s share of the electricity, and produce the corresponding CO2 emissions, there is a likely scenario of carbon emission caps that corporations will need to adhere to, making upgrades in energy efficiency now payoff big later if carbon caps are put in place.”


There is also a more immediate, albeit often overlooked, payoff to going green. “Selling carbon credits for corporations that are very efficient is also another way to tie green initiatives into a business case,” said Kosik.


A Penny Saved …


This can be an innovative way for IT to increase its own budget. “In some cases these initiatives may be a source of funding for IT investments,” said Wendy Perilli, director of SMB Product Marketing at VMware.

Just because IT budgets leave little room for feel good stuff doesn’t mean corporate hearts aren’t beating or that environmental concerns are being pushed to the back burner; boiled down to a stew of buzzwords. In fact, the opposite is true. Taking IT green may just be the first initiative corporate has found to be truly doable.


Robert Aldrich, principal, Energy Efficient Solutions at Cisco, said one of the biggest reasons why publicly traded corporations are adopting, and in many cases driving, a green agenda is “… the realization that the environment and economy are no longer at odds. In fact, they never have been for those who have studied sustainability. Going green is about reducing waste. Reducing waste saves money.”


As with any broad brush buzzword, confusion reigns around what “going green” really means, particularly in terms of capital expenditures and practical movement. Koisk said when looking at specific “greening” activities for a data center, there are typically lots of low hanging fruit related to the power and cooling systems that will have simple paybacks in one or two years. Some have instant paybacks because there are no capital costs involved such as adjusting set points for temperature and humidity, minimizing raised floor leakage, optimizing control and sequencing of cooling equipment, and optimizing air management on the raised floor to eliminate hot spots, which reduces the need to sub-cool the air.


Other upgrades, he said, which are much more substantial in first costs will have paybacks closer to five years. These are upgrades that are done to not only increase energy efficiency but also to lengthen the life of the facility and increase reliability. These types of upgrades typically include replacement of central cooling plant components, such as chillers, pumps and cooling towers, as well as electrical distribution such as UPS and power distribution units.


“A thorough analysis, including initial cost, energy cost, operational costs and green house gas emissions, is the best way to judge the viability of different projects,” advises HP’s Koisk.


The real shocker to companies first setting out on the green path is that some of the biggest steps are not in the direction one would assume. “Most clients are surprised to learn that 60 to 70 percent of the energy used in a data center is on the physical infrastructure equipment and only 30 to 40 percent on the IT equipment,” said Cefola. “What clients should aim to do is change the equation around so that more energy is used on the productive use of IT. In order to do this, they need to address both sides of the equation.”


Even with the energy savings, the reduction in wastes, the strain of rising energy costs, and the fear of future regulation, not every company is far enough along in its data center life cycle to justify a forklift upgrade.


“Any new technology will typically be more expensive than its predecessor from a capital expenditure standpoint. In the case of going green it's much more about the operational savings you achieve,” said Aldrich. “This is why it is so important to properly plan the business case for going green.”

The Green Toolkit


Of the many tools available to take a data center green, the most sensible area to attack first is the servers. While actual savings will vary by IT operation, there is clear cost benefit to driving up operative efficiency. “This is really what green is about in IT: electrical efficiency,” explains Aldrich. One of the best ways, he said, to improve efficiency is to implement virtualization in tandem with upgrading the facilities that support IT.


At Cisco, Aldrich has achieved as much as a 20% efficiency gain through the deployment of server and storage virtualization. “Many people do not realize the biggest efficiency gains resulting from virtualization actually result from reduced cooling cost. These cooling savings are indicative of the fact that in IT going green is more about the IT architecture than it is a point-product. Ensuring facilities and IT have the proper balance is at the heart of improved efficiency and reduced risk.”


Others agree with the Cisco call. “The business case for virtualization is clear and compelling—significant cost savings, greater flexibility, better management, faster and more reliable recovery, better security, etc.,” said VMware’s Perilli. She said server consolidation allows organizations to remove four tons of CO2 emissions from the environment for every server removed, which is equivalent to taking 1.5 cars off the road.


“Now that electrical costs have, in most cases, surpassed the cost of the actual hardware, virtualization is one of the most attractive technologies available today both financially and environmentally,” said Cisco’s Aldrich.


Servers are energy hogs and they are getting the attention of CFOs who are now setting their sights on reigning in energy and facility costs. IBM’s Cefola said servers account for 50 to 75 percent of the data center’s total floor space and the average utilization is five to 15 percent, meaning the server sprawl represents a challenge in high maintenance and support costs and the associated energy required to run them.


“After consolidation and virtualization, server environments typically change to servers accounting for only 20 to 50 percent of the data center’s total floor space by achieving consolidation ratios from 6:1 to 20:1. It can also improve their server utilization rates up to 80% which results in typical total cost of ownership savings from 30 to 70 percent,” he said.


Beyond optimizing the physical plant and implementing virtualization, Aldrich offers these additional steps to ensure your data center goes fully green and stays that way:


       Specify highly efficient products in requests for pricing. Look for greater than 85% efficiency power supplies.

       Benchmark the efficiency of your IT operation. You can't improve upon your current situation if you don't know where you are today.

       Deploy Ethernet to monitor, measure and manage power consumption for both IT and facilities. You can manage what you can measure.

       Perform regular utilization audits to ensure you are getting the most out of your IT assets.


At the end of the day, going green is a newbie experience as there are few long term models to follow. Part of the responsibilities then lie in sharing the wealth. “Share your best practices with the industry. We are all in this together and the importance of these issues surpasses typical competitive boundaries,” said Aldrich.