Green data centers tackle LEED certification

Achieving the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification is a tall order for power hungry data centers. Despite the challenge, two companies have certified their green data centers.

With the completion of two Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified data centers in recent years, IT professionals are beginning to see the green building's movement adopted by their sector. These types of projects provide a blueprint for environmentally responsible buildings that may save companies money in the long run.

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The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which uses its LEED green building certification ratings system to give companies and builders a set of guidelines to use for designing and constructing building projects, is itself a coalition of building industry leaders working to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to work.

Using criteria that encompass a whole building approach, LEED focuses on five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor air quality. Project teams design buildings and choose products that help them earn credits in the aforementioned areas to then qualify for the various certifications, which run from platinum at the top, to gold, and then silver ratings.

Thus far, two green data centers have become LEED-certified: mortgage company, Fannie Mae, with its Urbana Technology center in Md; and insurer Highmark's data center in central Pa.

At the moment, the emphasis on green data centers appears to be on new construction projects. However, it should be noted that the USGBC does have an existing buildings program, which may encompass data center projects in the future.

It's not easy being green

Mark Wood, director of data center infrastructure, Highmark, was a co-chair for the company's project team, and says one of Highmark's motivations for going green with its data center was to make a good faith business move with the state of Pennsylvania, which requires all new government buildings to be LEED-certified. (The insurer does a significant amount of business with the state.)

Due to LEED's somewhat tough standards, the accreditation process can be expensive and time-consuming for companies. In fact, Wood and the project team faced budget challenges when trying to achieve LEED credits. Nonetheless, the completed Highmark project ended on a high note with the center achieving a silver rating in its LEED-certification.

The entire building is two stories high and encompasses 87,000 square feet. The data center comprises 28,000 square feet with a raised floor, and an additional 15,000 square feet is available for future expansion. Along with all the necessary hardware components being stored in the building, there are office areas that house approximately 50 employees.

"Knowing that we are helping the environment; trying to be a good corporate citizen in the industry; and knowing that our people have a safe and healthy atmosphere to work in are really the benefits," said Wood.

What does LEED mean for IT?

Allan Mougey, director of professional services at New York consulting firm CS Technology, was involved on both the Fannie Mae and Highmark projects, and worked on the cabling infrastructures, the layouts, and the migrations of critical systems from the old facilities to the new data centers.

Overall, Mougey says that there is not a lot that can be done towards LEED credits in terms of technology itself.

"The majority of the items that count towards LEED certification are related to the mechanical and electrical support infrastructure as well as the architectural design elements," explains Mougey.

While there may not be many LEED credits generated by the IT aspects of a project, Mougey says IT professionals can play an important role on the project team.

"Be willing to support any questions the LEED professional may have as it relates to achieving certain points during the certification process," explains Mougey. He also says IT professionals should know what their present infrastructure needs are, and what they may be in terms of potential growth or expansion.

Green IT operations extend beyond LEED

While supporting a company's goal of for LEED certification is important, IT professionals can take it upon themselves to create energy efficiencies within the data center, inside or outside of a LEED project.

Typically, a data center's biggest expense is electricity. The need to perpetually operate systems and cool them makes their power needs enormous. Bob Sullivan, Ph.D., a senior consultant from the Uptime Institute, said there are a few different efficiency measures that can be implemented.

"Spend some IT dollars on removing legacy servers," Sullivan said. For example, a very old server running an application that is no longer supported by the new operating systems will sit there and burn power perpetually -- even if that application is only run once a week or once a month. Sullivan acknowledges that purchasing hardware will require taking money out of the IT budget and result in possibly cutting back on purchases in other hardware products, but updating servers will create significant energy efficiencies.

Another major inefficiency is the cooling operation. The Uptime Institute did a survey of 19 data centers that had an average of over 200,000 square feet. The Institute reported that on average only 40% of the cold air was going directly to cool the servers in the room.

"For every 100 kw of power the computer equipment was dissipating, they had 260 kw of cooling capacity operating in the room," explains Sullivan. "Because of this, on average, those same 19 data centers had 2.6 times the cooling capacity operating; it should be 1.25, roughly speaking; you need some redundant cooling operating in the room."

In order to remedy this inefficiency, proper installation of the hot aisle, cold aisle must take place. Additionally, steps should be taken to seal off cable cutouts and holes in the perimeter walls and the raised floors.

Sullivan says a reduction of the bypass airflow - the air not getting to the server - should be reduced to below 10%, and not be as high as that 60% figure from the Uptime survey.

Lastly, Sullivan mentions sharing multiple applications on servers. "The utilization on servers is atrociously low," states Dr. Sullivan. "The average server is utilized only for 10% to 20% of its capacity."

IT professionals can save power and contribute to bottom-line savings at their companies, but Sullivan believes that in order for true energy efficiency measures to happen in the data center, upper management has to make a commitment to it.

"To have a truly corporate policy, it's got to come from the top down," Sullivan said. "If the CIO doesn't care about efficiency in the data center, do you think anybody working for him is going to?"

Let us know what you think about the article; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor

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