State of data center facilities: 2011

In this special report, we look at how IT professionals are addressing the power and cooling needs of their data centers and find out how many professionals are interested in green technology.

The data center can cost an organization a tremendous amount of capital, which includes the structure itself, data center hardware and the power and cooling needed to continually run the facility. While building and equipment needs are straightforward capital expenditures, the use of power and cooling represent recurring operational expenses that all businesses want to curtail.

In early 2011, SearchDataCenter.com released the Data Center Decisions 2011 (DCD: 2011) survey to gauge trends and understand factors influencing the data center’s evolution in the enterprise. We received over 1,000 responses from a range of professionals spanning numerous IT roles. This third article in our special report series examines factors surrounding data center power and cooling and how these issues have changed over the past year.

The reality of power in the data center
Power can be a precious commodity in some regions of North America where disruptions and rolling blackouts are common during seasons of increased demand. There even are rare cases where organizations simply cannot buy more electricity -- at least not economically to support data center growth.

However, the fear of running out of power is unfounded. In DCD: 2011, about 80% of IT professionals indicated that their data centers will not reach or exceed the maximum power and/or cooling demands for the year. Only 20% of respondents said that they faced power/cooling limitations. Interestingly, this is almost unchanged from 2010 survey results.

Worrying about the bill. In reality, most IT professionals don’t need to worry about running out of power. And, our study shows, they may need to be less concerned about covering the bill as well. In 2011, 40% of respondents said that the IT department is responsible for paying the power bill, while 60% do not. The matter of IT departments footing the utility bill is in decline from 2010, where 47% of IT departments paid for power and 53% did not.

Even though fewer data centers are being held accountable for paying for their energy usage, they should still make efforts to reduce power when possible, experts advise. “The tools and best practices are available to wring every drop of performance out of existing data center assets, and to operate data centers in the most cost- and energy-efficient manner,” said Matt Stansberry, director of content and publications for The Uptime Institute. “But if the IT department is not responsible for the power bill, it can’t be as effective in driving data center efficiency.”

Stansberry emphasized the importance of a systematic approach -- starting at the application and data layers, consolidating applications and servers, deduplicating data, removing comatose but power-draining servers and building redundancy into the applications and IT architecture rather than physical systems. “These improvements will not happen if IT does not realize the financial benefits from the changes,” he said.

And power bills are increasing. At least 54% of 2011 respondents said power cost more than it did in 2010. Another 15% of respondents reported that power costs remained the same while 15% noted some decline. This is a big jump from 2010 results, in which 39% of respondents indicated an increase in power costs over the previous year.

“We were seeing a steady increase in our power consumption and our power bill, and we were forced to pay more for cooling, infrastructure management, disaster recovery cooling units and electricity,” said Bill Kleyman, director of technology at World Wide Fittings Inc., an industrial pipe manufacturer headquartered in Niles, Ill. “We’ve been able to mitigate some of these costs by virtualizing some older hardware. Still, power consumption is a concern as it does fluctuate.”

Aiming to save power. Increasing power costs and the lingering concern of power availability are driving data centers to reduce power consumption. When asked to rate the importance of data center power conservation in 2011, 30% noted it as very important, 46% ranked the effort as somewhat important and 24% said that it was not a priority. These results are similar to 2010 responses, in which 33% considered power conservation a high priority, 45% viewed it as somewhat important and 21% of respondents didn’t focus on it.  

Organizations are adopting different tactics to conserve data center power. And survey responses suggest that the emphasis is clearly on efficiency in 2011, as shown in Table 1. Server virtualization, for example, allows an organization to run more workloads on fewer servers. Similarly, using energy-efficient servers, improving the use of air conditioning to make cooling more efficient and using containment tactics to effectively direct cooling allow a data center to make the most of what it has.

A small portion of survey respondents are using new technologies like DC power, economizers or evaporative cooling to improve data center efficiency. Perhaps the biggest shift in attitude over the last year is an increased interest in server virtualization as a way to improve both short-term and long-term efficiency of the data center.

Table 1 – Near-term tactics to conserve power in the data center

Technology 2011 results 2010 results

Implementing server virtualization

78%

68%

Buying energy-efficient servers

63%

60%

Improving air conditioning efficiency

50%

58%

In-row or in-rack containment

30%

No data

Hot-aisle or cold-aisle containment

28%

34%

Power-down features on servers

22%

25%

Direct current (DC) power

18%

19%

Air-side or water-side economizers

14%

13%

Evaporative cooling techniques

14%

No data

Liquid cooling

7%

12%

Long-term power and cooling strategies. Organizations looking to reduce cooling costs over the long haul will need to take a broader approach toward minimizing power and cooling demands. Table 2 compares the most important strategies for 2011 and beyond, according to DCD: 2011.

Table 2 – Long-term tactics to conserve power in the data center

Technology 2011 results

Consolidate workloads with server virtualization

47%

Increase cooling capacity

31%

Increase power capacity

26%

Build a new data center

24%

Distribute workloads across multiple data centers

20%

Renovate existing data center

17%

Consolidate existing data centers

14%

Lease colocation space

12%

Engage Infrastructure as a Service or Platform as a Service providers

7%

Virtualization is a common strategy to conserve power over the long term. In addition to this tactic, the long-term emphasis is squarely on capacity growth -- providing more cooling, more power and more physical space (often including more power and cooling resources) as needed.

When businesses face hard limits of power and cooling at one facility, server virtualization, specifically the workload migration capabilities of a virtualization platform, makes it possible to redistribute workloads across multiple data centers with additional power and cooling. This can save tremendous capital on the construction of a new data center, and avoid any unpredictable disruptions that might occur with a renovation.

Choosing the best power and cooling infrastructure
Containment systems manage the flow of cooled air, allowing it to reach and cool hot equipment. It then removes warm air before it mixes with cooled air. There is no single “right” containment strategy; several methods are used in the data center.

In 2011, 51% of IT professionals reported using ducted or plenum containment to control air flow in the data center, 43% use hot-aisle containment and 39% use cold-aisle containment. These findings are similar to 2010 results, except for a slight uptick in 2011 in ducted and cold-aisle containment use. There was also a small decline in the use of hot-aisle containment.

Flooring is another design factor that’s used as a low plenum for cooled air as well as a foundation for data center servers and other equipment. And though there are several approaches, the popularity of certain methods heated up this past year.

In 2011, 54% of IT respondents reported using raised floors, while 40% deployed slab floor. This is a nota ble change from 2010 where 58% of IT professionals used raised flooring and 33% used slab flooring. The increased interest in slab flooring may indicate frustration with limitations of using traditional raised floors with heavier racks and the occurrence of frequent server hot spots in blade server deployments, for example.

Choices in uninterruptable power supply (UPS) systems. UPS systems provide temporary power to servers and other data center equipment in the event of power anomalies (surges) or disruptions (blackouts) from the utility provider. The batteries within the UPS continue to provide power to the equipment until utilities are restored, or until the equipment can be shut down to prevent data loss. Table 3 lists the most important UPS vendors for 2011 and 2010, according to DCD: 2011 survey respondents.

Table 3 – Principal UPS vendor preferences

Vendor 2011 results 2010 results

American Power Conversion (APC)/Schneider/MGE

65%

60%

Emerson Liebert Corp.

16%

21%

Eaton Corp.

8%

8%

Tripp Lite

4%

1%

Controlled Power Co.

1%

1%

Choices in computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units. CRAC units handle the traditional task of cooling air that is delivered to the data center, then accepting and re-cooling the returned warmed air. As a large-scale industrial system, CRAC systems require a lot of power and represent a significant investment in facilities space and infrastructure.

Only two CRAC vendors stood out as leaders in the field in DCD: 2011. Thirty-six percent of IT professionals reported using Emerson Liebert Corp. CRAC units; 29% prefer American Power Conversion/Schneider. This represents a net gain for APC/Schneider from 2010 where 42% of respondents used Emerson Liebert Corp. CRAC units, and 25% used APC/Schneider.

Facilities spending
Building the structure and mechanical infrastructure for a data center can be a costly endeavor.  Even while budgets remain tight, organizations are putting money toward building or renovating their facilities to add vital computing capacity.

In 2011, 35% of respondents expect some increase in infrastructure spending, 55% expect spending to remain flat and only 10% expect a decrease. It appears that organizations are loosening the purse strings on facilities spending over the years. Compared to 2010 results, the number of respondents who expected a slash in their infrastructure and facilities budgets is down from 15%.

This was first published in July 2011

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