Power and Cooling Top of Mind at Dell

By Drew Robb

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Most manuals of data center best practices emphasize system availability and space requirement planning. While both are still vital, other factors appear to be taking precedence.

“Cooling and power are eclipsing space and availability as the main concern of data center managers,” said Andreas Antonopoulos, an analyst at New York City-based IT research firm Nemertes Research.

Dell found out the truth of those words recently. It has been aware for some time that its principal data center at corporate headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, consumed a massive amount of power. The extent of the utility bills, in fact, motivated Dell CTO Kevin Kettler to analyze the specifics of energy consumption in detail.

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“Power and thermal demands are now top of mind,” said Kettler. “Our solution was to drive for maximum efficiency by looking at all areas: clients, silicon, software, infrastructure and management.”

When he dug in to total power consumption he discovered something far from unexpected—that IT equipment was the largest consumer of power. What wasn’t anticipated, however, was how much power consumption was being lost in distributing power around the room and in taking care of the cooling demands of the data center.

“While 41 percent of our total power went to IT equipment, another 28 percent was consumed in power distribution and 31 percent went to cooling,” said Kettler.

Most people would have been happy with that insight and would then have taken steps to reduce power distribution losses or found ways to lessen the cooling bill. But Dell took things a couple of steps further.

First, the company looked in more detail into the exact make up of IT equipment consumption. Once again, the results showed something predictable on the one hand—that servers were the main energy hogs—but also coughed up yet more surprises—that communication gear was also a significant drawer of power.

“Within the IT equipment category, 40 percent of power was consumed by servers,” said Kettler. “But we also found that 37 percent went to storage arrays and other storage gear, and that 23 percent went to communications or networking gear.”

For the final step of the analysis, Dell drilled down more into the server category. Everyone knows, of course, that CPUs are the power villains inside any server. And the analysis proved that out. CPUs used 31% of the power. But other components were also significant power drinkers. Memory, for instance, tied up six percent of server power and hard disk drives took up 13%.

Kettler’s conclusion is one that CIO’s and CTO’s everywhere should take to heart. It helped him form a more holistic approach to data center power and cooling management.

“We realized that the processor takes up only six percent of the total power in our data center,” said Kettler. “Power management is clearly not just about AMD v. Intel.”

IT Trends

Kettler supplemented the discussion by covering the major IT trends as he sees them. The first of these, he said, is the penetration of x86 servers will continue into the enterprise. This obviously heartens Dell as it only offers x86 goods.

Further hewing the Dell party line, he intimated that scale-out will dominate over attempts at scale-up. This particular trend, of course, fits in with the company’s existing product portfolio. While other vendors are attempting to build mega-boxes that can be used to house dozens of virtual copies of smaller servers, he sees smaller scale-out machines as wining the day.

“Consolidation through virtualization is certainly an ongoing trend,” said Kettler. “But scaling out is a better way to achieve it.”

Another trend, he says, is that storage growth will continue unabated. He pointed to some statistics to support his assertion. According to International Data Corp (IDC) of Framingham, Mass., storage capacity worldwide is growing at a rate of 56% annually. Currently, it adds up to 4000 PB (petabytes). But by 2010, it will have risen to about 16000 PB.

He made his point with an example from one application running within the company.

“Dell has over 1 TB (terabyte) of storage on an EMC Symmetrix DMX 3000 disk array just to manage our supply chain system,” said Kettler. “This system is supported by eight Dell PowerEdge servers running Linux.”

Kettler further believes that just as x86 is winning out in the server space, IP will win out over Fibre Channel (FC) in the world of storage. The advent of 10 Gb Ethernet, he believes, will accelerate this trend. He takes it as far as IP developing into a unifying platform that encompasses IP SANs, InfiniBand clusters, FC SANs and Ethernet LAN’s. As a result, many more types of devices will have to connect into existing racks.

“Look for greater standardization of storage connector slots in future rack designs,” said Kettler. “These will be built in to handle any type of connector.”

These trends, he said, all tie back to the subject of power and cooling.

“Power and thermal demands are changing drastically within server rooms,” he says. “Any IT projects these days have to consider heat density as an important factor.”