Can an eco-friendly colo data center really save you some green?

Meredith Courtemanche

Whether it's to save money or save the planet, many companies want greener IT operations.

When you outsource equipment and operations to a colocation provider, the electricity bill lands in someone else's inbox. How do you know the colo data center is truly "green?"

Green power

First things first: Power usage effectiveness (PUE) and renewable, clean or green energy are two separate but frequently related topics.

"A legacy facility powered by renewable energy will always trump a new facility powered by coal in terms of energy and environmental impact," said John Booth, vice chair of the green IT group at BCS, a consortia for industry, academia and business in the U.K.

A colocation data center powered entirely by solar photovoltaic energy may register a PUE over 2.0, while the conventional coal-powered facility, with an efficient cooling scheme and modern equipment, achieves close to 1.0 PUE. Both could be marketed as an eco-friendly data center.

"PUE is a metric that can be misleading if you don't ask the right questions of your potential provider," said Rick Drescher, technical services director at Studley Inc., a commercial real estate services firm based in New York.

Colocation customers interested in running green IT should ask about the provider's clean energy strategy, carbon footprint and power utilization efficiency, said Raouf Abdel, operating chief at Equinix Inc., which operates colocation facilities in 30 countries.

Learn how efficient the IT load consumption is compared to the total power draw.

Green for the money

When vetting a colocation provider, learn whether you pay the colocation company directly for power, typical of smaller colocation customers. Wholesale colocation models pay the utility directly. Many local and state governments offer incentives to use renewable energy sources for power, but only to the direct consumer of power, not necessarily their customers, Drescher said.

To reduce the cost of colocation through green initiatives, ask about a facility's operational PUE, not simply the designed PUE. Providers typically don't advertise their current PUE, Drescher said.

Since designed PUE is calculated for 85% to 90% capacity utilization, it offers the best possible operating conditions for heat containment, advanced cooling and other technologies deployed for efficient power consumption.

"A facility designed to a PUE of 1.3 at 90% utilization could easily have an actual PUE of 1.8 or higher when it is only at 15% to 20% of its designed capacity," Drescher said. For a power-consumption-based colocation contract, this higher operational PUE is money out the door.

Look for a colo data center provider that adopts green building or power techniques that are a natural fit for the location, so green investment doesn't outweigh efficiency. "Whether power is sourced from the grid, a solar panel farm or a wind turbine, the PUE is still calculated the same," Drescher pointed out.

Don't push for outside air cooling if choosing a colo center close to a city, said Lex Coors, VP of data center technology and engineering group, and chief engineering officer at Interxion Holding N.V., a European-based carrier-neutral colocation provider. ASHRAE advises against using direct air in cities because of pollution.

"If you refresh equipment very quickly, though, it might never have an effect," he noted.

Interxion sources more than 75% of its data center power from green sources, but the actual energy generation technology varies by geography.

"We use modular data centers with adiabatic cooling, sea water cooling -- the technology we use depends on the location and what's appropriate for it," said Ian McVey, head of systems integrators at Interxion.

Free cooling is appropriate for colder climates, Equinix's Abdel said, but colocation centers are located based on where the customers are, not the ideal climate. Chilled water, glycol, air cooling or another strategy work better in different locales.

"Chicken coups [designs that use outside air] and fancy ways to cool buildings, 480 V power -- those are fine," said James Kozlowski, vice president of colocation business development at Savvis, a subsidiary of CenturyLink Inc. "But when the equipment works seamlessly together, that's what's important."

Green for the planet

Beyond cost savings, eco-conscious colocation data centers can contribute to a corporate social responsibility or green initiative.

When you outsource data center facility operations to a third-party provider, the electricity used to run your applications and store customer data doesn't cease to exist. Companies with an internal mandate to use less fossil fuel, or those under pressure by their end users to take green action, can easily fulfill this pledge with the right colo data center. And colocation providers are picking up on this trend.

Iron Mountain Inc.'s new Northborough, Mass.-based colocation data center is LEED Gold certified.

"LEED standards are important because of Iron Mountain's commitment to sustainability; it was not necessarily an economic decision," said Dan Golding, vice president of operations at Iron Mountain, which provides colocation and cloud hosting in the U.S.

Other green-tinted accreditations include BCS' CEEDA (Certified Energy Efficient Datacentre Award) and the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres on Energy Efficiency.

Whether lagging green initiatives will turn off potential colocation customers is up for debate.

"Green is on [requests for proposals], but it isn't always on final decisions," said Bryan Chong, sales vice president at Digital Realty Inc.

Colocation customers primarily take an interest in the provider's efficiency, Chong said, but that "goes hand in hand with being green." Digital Realty sees green-minded decisions about data center operations, like outside air optimization, as a way to lower costs and increase competitiveness in the colocation marketplace.

"Sustainability and green deployments are more and more important to ... really large customers who are running at a big scale," Abdel said, but not as much for an IT organization colocating five to 10 cabinets.

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Meredith Courtemanche
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