Taming the Energy Hogs
For corporate data centers, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to the massive energy bills generated by all those bits and bytes.
Robert Cassiliano calls them energy hogs. And he’s far from alone.
Today’s data centers are bigger and more powerful than ever. This is good for information technology (IT) departments and the companies that rely on the information that data centers store. But bigger isn’t always better when it comes to the bottom line for corporate data centers—just ask anyone who reads the energy bills that these massive data centers generate.
It’s true that today’s data centers can hold more information than ever. Unfortunately, it’s just as true that they gobble more energy than ever.
“It’s amazing how much energy some of these large data centers consume,” says Cassiliano, chairman of the board of the 7x24 Exchange, a knowledge exchange for professionals who build, design, use, and maintain data centers. “The numbers can be staggering. It’s not surprising, then, that so many companies are looking for ways to cut down on the energy that their data centers use.”
Data center operators have three concerns: power density, reliability, and efficiency.
The good news is that the manufacturers of data center equipment and cooling systems have gotten the message. They know that businesses and their IT departments today want more from their data centers than reliability and availability—they want data centers that operate in a more energy-efficient manner, too. This makes sense; the economy is still struggling. Businesses have to cut costs wherever they can. Energy costs, especially when businesses are relying on power-hungry data centers, can cut a big hole in a company’s budget.
Manufacturers are reacting to this in a variety of ways. They’re developing UPS systems that only operate at full power when incoming power sources are suffering disruptions. They’re creating cooling systems that provide blasts of cool air while consuming less power. They’re tinkering with cold aisle containment and other cooling methods to reduce their energy bills.
Outside consultants and advisors are doing their part, too, working with businesses and municipalities to help them discover hidden ways to operate their data centers more efficiently. This includes planning for new growth so that data center operators only purchase and install new servers when absolutely necessary. It also includes preaching that data centers don’t necessarily have to be cooled to arctic temperatures.
At the same time, the operators of data centers are taking their own steps to run their equipment more efficiently. In some cases, this may include assigning an IT department head with the responsibility of reducing the amount of power the data center consumes each month. This is certainly one way to get the attention of IT professionals who, in the past, cared only that their data centers never went offline, without sparing a thought about how much power they wasted while storing information.
For Cassiliano, who is also the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Colts Neck, NJ-based Business Information Services, none of this is revolutionary. He and his fellow 7x24 members have been trying, since 1989, to make IT department heads, building owners, and corporate presidents understand that data centers don’t have to be energy hogs.
Cassiliano is happy to see that the group’s message—an advocacy message shared, fortunately, by several other industry groups, too—is finally becoming mainstream. He also understands that his group’s advocacy work is far from over.
“Back from when we first started our exchange, the conferences that we ran focused on the hot topics of the day,” says Cassiliano. “In ’89, we were talking about power harmonics; we were talking about watts per square foot. Then, cooling became a hot topic. Right now, it is energy efficiency.”
Power Needs That Dwarf Warehouses
As segment marketing manager for Schneider Electric Data Center Solutions, Mike Murry works with the owners of some of the largest data centers in the country—the ones that boast their own buildings.
Today, a growing number of data center operators are aiming for equipment that comes with 97 or 98% efficiency levels.
The NetRiver data center boasts 5,000 to 10,000 W of power per cabinet.
He agrees with the industry experts who say that large data centers are huge consumers of energy. “Your large data centers are using 30 to 40 times the power that an office or warehouse will be using for the same square footage,” says Murry. “With new servers coming out, the power needs of these data centers are only increasing. We’re working with data center operators to figure out ways in which to increase the energy efficiency of these large centers.”
The challenge comes on two fronts. Data centers need to be always available. They need, then, a reliable onsite power system providing them either their main source of power or backup power. Data centers can also run extremely hot. That’s why they need such powerful cooling systems.
Because these centers need so much power and cooling, they consume large amounts of energy. That means higher utility bills each month, something that few companies or municipalities can afford in these difficult economic times.
Consultants and manufacturers are working more closely today with data center operators. The goal is a complex one: Everyone wants data centers that are as reliable as ever while consuming less power.
It’s not the easiest trick. Fortunately, manufacturers of cooling systems and power distribution products are discovering ways to accomplish it.
It all starts when manufacturers first meet with data center operators, Murry says. “Some data centers need more reliability than others,” he says. “You have tier ratings, with tier-4 centers requiring the highest reliability. Knowing how much reliability a data center needs helps you determine what equipment and systems to recommend.”
Some data centers have power coming into their servers and equipment from two utilities on two separate paths, Murry says. Others may have power coming in from only one utility, but this power might still come in on two separate paths. In either case, if one path fails, the other continues to power the data center equipment.
Data center clients also have varying needs for cooling equipment. In-row cooling, which brings the cool air down closer to the server, works best for some data centers, especially those that can least afford to suffer a malfunction from overheated equipment. Other data centers can rely on perimeter cooling, which sends cool air around the white space in a data center room.
Murry says: “People are looking for different ideas from manufacturers today on how to handle their cooling and power needs. If you’re a manufacturer, you have to study your clients’ needs to be able to give them a quality recommendation.
“You have three main things today that data center operators worry about: power density, reliability, and energy efficiency,” he explains. “The consultant, whoever is designing the data center, has to balance all the needs of those three factors with the needs of the IT department. It can be a challenge.”
These three factors haven’t changed over the years. What have changed are the data centers themselves.
Murry says that three years ago, most data centers had a power density of 2–3 kW a rack. Today, most data centers now feature 10–15 kW a rack. There are even higher-density data centers that feature more than 100 kW per rack.
“They have exploded when it comes to power density,” says Murry. “And this has happened in such a short period of time. Consultants and manufacturers have had to adapt quickly to the changing reality of these data centers.”
Manufacturers of power distribution and cooling equipment are taking different approaches to helping data center operators reduce their energy bills. Schneider Electric, for instance, offers what Murry calls a holistic package: The company will provide both building management and power distribution services to its data center operators. This way, Schneider Electric analysts can better determine the steps that data center operators can take to reduce the power that their servers and other equipment consume.
“Some data center operators are worried about energy efficiency, and some are not,” says Murry. “But the market as a whole is moving in that direction. If you talked to data center operators three years ago, energy efficiency was still in the top 10 of their concerns, probably at seven or eight on their list. Today, it is a probably a two or three concern. Power, cooling, availability are all up there, but energy efficiency is moving up the chain, too.”
Ed Spears knows the damage that bad public relations (PR) can do to a company. He’s the manager of marketing programs for Eaton, a power management company that provides backup power, power management, racks, surge suppression, and power conditioning products to data centers.
He knows, then, that data centers, and the companies that use them, would like to shed their reputation for consuming an inordinate amount of energy.
“Data centers have gained such a reputation as energy hogs. That’s not a good thing to have PR-wise,” says Spears. “You read the quotes like, ‘The world’s data centers emit more carbon than the entire country of Malaysia’, or ‘Data centers emit more greenhouse gases than the entire airline industry.’ This is not good public relations.”
This is why Eaton focuses so heavily on improving the power efficiency of the equipment that it supplies to its data center clients, he says.
“We get a lot of pressure to make our products as energy efficient as possible,” he adds. “It’s the same for people who make IT equipment. They have to make it operate as efficiently as possible.”
Today’s largest data centers are often the biggest power users in their particular part of the city, Spears says. Because of this, they tend to receive a lot of attention from the utility companies that have to provide them power.
In part, because of this, Eaton does a busy business providing backup onsite power systems to data centers, he says.
Utility companies appreciate it when large data centers can draw on their own onsite power to handle their peak power requirements during the day without having to constantly draw from the utility power source, Spears says. This is especially important on the hottest days of the year, when public utilities are already stressed. It helps if utilities’ largest power users can rely partly on their own backup power.
Spears considers it a good sign that data center operators are paying attention to how much power their servers and cooling systems consume. It’s a significant change from the way IT departments once operated, he says.
“You went for decades when the only thing important to IT departments was that their data centers be operating and available,” he explains. “Uptime was the key. Everything else, including power usage, was a secondary concern. Now that the cost of power for cooling and operating the equipment has gone from less than 10% of companies’ operating budgets to 50 or 60%, there is more concern. That’s a huge chunk of money there. The financial types, the bean counters, are deeply concerned
Five years ago, data center operators were happy if their UPS power system boasted efficiency ratings of 93 or 94%. That has changed today as data centers rely on ever more power-hungry equipment.
Today, a growing number of data center operators are aiming for equipment that comes with 97 or 98% efficiency levels, Spears says. If centers don’t reach this level, increasing power costs will limit the work that IT departments can do.
“Data center operators were telling us that they had to make a bigger jump in efficiency capabilities than we have in the last two decades, and that we had to do it right away,” he notes.
Eaton now offers a UPS system that boasts an energy efficiency rating of 99%, Spears adds. The company’s Energy Saver System commands the UPS system to constantly monitor the power coming into a data center. If the power level is acceptable, the system minimizes the amount of power processing taken on by the UPS system.
In the past, this didn’t work for most data centers. That’s because when the incoming power to data centers went bad, the power protection system wasn’t fast enough to prevent the center’s equipment from shutting down. With the new system, though, Eaton can react instantly when incoming power fluctuates, providing reliable backup power without any equipment shutdowns.
“The reality is that the power quality coming out of the wall is acceptable 99.999% of the time,” says Spears. “Data centers will consume less energy if their UPS systems are not constantly processing power.”
Cassiliano, from the 7x24 Exchange, has seen data center operators and manufacturers try several approaches to boosting energy efficiency.
Several data centers are now relying on cold aisle containment to cut down on the amount of energy their cooling systems consume, he says. This technique prevents hot and cold air from mixing in a data center. That boosts the energy efficiency of a cooling system.
Data centers in cooler climates can use airside economizers that use cool outside air to cycle down their air conditioning units and air compressors. These pieces of equipment consume a large amount of electricity. By cycling them down with cool outside air, data center operators can shave a significant amount of money from their cooling bills.
From the equipment side, Cassiliano says, manufacturers are developing more efficient servers and power-supply equipment. Servers today come with power management features that switch on when the machines are not operating at their peak levels. Other manufacturers are relying on virtualization techniques to move applications so that the efficiency of their servers increases. There are times when companies are even able to move their applications around so much that they can eliminate entire servers, saving a huge amount of power costs each year.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that IT departments and facility managers are more often working together to find ways in which to reduce energy consumption, he notes.
“The energy bill for the data center might become the responsibility of the CIO [chief information officer],” explains Cassiliano. “You are starting to see that happen. It’s not happening all over, but it is happening more often. When CIOs are responsible for all components of the data center, including the energy it is using, that tends to focus their attention on ways to reduce the energy bill.”
A Lot of Power, Limited Space
NetRiver International has its own needs when it comes to data centers: It needs to pack a lot of power in a small footprint.
NetRiver provides a colocation data center—which other companies needing data center storage space can tie into—in the Seattle, WA, suburb of Lynnwood. The company’s officials are relying on Eaton’s Energy Saver System to install a lot of power in a limited amount of physical space.
The NetRiver data center boasts 5,000 to 10,000 W of power per cabinet. This comes out to 250 to 500 W per square foot. That’s far above the norm; most data centers operate on 100 W of power for every square foot of space.
“Boosting our energy efficiency was huge,” says Adam Vierra, sales and marketing director with NetRiver. “Most of the UPS systems have that curve. The efficiency for them is at 30 or 40% at the low loading values. That’s not good. Now we can run at 99% efficiency all the time, as opposed to 30% efficiency at the low loading levels. We can save a lot of money because of this.”
Vierra doesn’t have an exact figure, but he says that with rebates and savings, NetRiver saves $10,000 a year for every 1% gain in efficiency their UPS system realizes.
NetRiver saved money, too, thanks to a rebate given to the company from its local public utility. NetRiver received a rebate in the $100,000 range, Vierra says, a reward for cutting down on the amount of power its data center consumes.
He states that NetRiver is positioning itself for the future when it tries to squeeze as much data center power into as small a space as possible. “You know that these centers are getting smaller, faster, and denser,” says Vierra. “You want to position yourself as best you can to meet tomorrow’s needs. Things get rapidly outdated in this industry. You can be cutting-edge today, but not tomorrow. We want to extend our cutting-edge time as long as we can. We think we’re doing that.”
Mike Kaul and Chris Merlin, both with Redwood City, CA-based Sentilla Corporation, agree that data centers today have to position themselves for the future. Part of doing this requires that these centers do use less energy while remaining reliable and available.
Sentilla Corporation provides energy management software that helps data center operators increase their center’s energy efficiency. Sentilla helps operators understand how their data centers are using energy and find ways to reduce consumption across their centers’ applications, servers, and cooling systems.
“When we talk to new customers, different problems arise,” says Merlin, product marketing engineer with Sentilla. “Every data center is different. But many of them would like to cut some of the energy costs. The data center is a big money sink.”
Kaul, Sentilla’s CEO, says that data center operators have reached the point at which they do want to lower their energy costs.
In the not-so-distant past, companies would simply order additional servers if their data centers weren’t operating efficiently enough, Kaul says. With today’s tough economic times, this is changing.
“At some point, a CEO will say, ‘What is all this costing me?’” he explains. “They don’t want to keep throwing servers at the problems. They are now looking at every switch. They are trying to figure out new ways to attack the energy consumption of their data centers.”
Kaul says that Sentilla’s Energy Manager 3.0 software allows IT managers to determine if all the assets of a data center are working at peak performance. IT managers can use the software to pinpoint storage units that are configured improperly. They can use it to anticipate problems and perform capacity planning.
Surprisingly, with so much focus on budget-trimming, many companies still don’t completely understand how important it is that their data centers run as efficiently as possible. Kaul says Sentilla officials still have to explain in detail the benefits that data center operators will receive by managing their centers’ consumption levels.
“It seems so intuitive, but it is sometimes very hard to make the case,” says Kaul. “The problem is that, in many industries, the problem isn’t well understood at the senior level. You may talk to the facilities person, who understands exactly what you’re saying. But that person doesn’t have the budget to attack the problem. The IT guys are chartered with making sure that the servers are running; they don’t have the budget to address energy efficiency. Usually things change when CTOs [chief technical officers] or CEOs wake up and realize that they can’t keep throwing money at this problem. That’s when they say, ‘Hey, you guys in the trenches—let’s solve this thing!’”
Author's Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.
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