Data centers go 'green'

Not just for hippies: Green computing takes root in the enterprise.

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It takes a lot of energy to run a corporate data center. Estimates vary, but most sources agree that the typical data center uses anywhere between 10 and 40 watts of electricity per square foot. For a large corporate data center, that means a significant annual energy cost. With fuel prices on the rise, it does not take a genius to figure out that an energy-efficient data center means budget savings.

For that reason, as well as for general environmental concerns, energy efficiency is on a lot of people's minds. New technologies are cropping up everywhere to increase efficiency and environmental friendliness in the data center. These span everything from more energy efficient HVAC systems to completely solar powered buildings.

There are two factors in the problem of energy efficiency. One is the equipment, and the other is the building itself. For the former, vendors are already taking the lead.

"Server and microprocessor vendors have become increasingly interested in power saving," said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT Research in Hayward, CA. With the way that microprocessors are structured, it is a matter of survival for vendors to consider power consumption and heat generation in order to assure the most efficient server, he points out.

Choosing energy efficient equipment, as well as an efficient HVAC and a well thought-out UPS load distribution, is pure common sense at this point for the cost-conscious organization. Some, however, are taking it a step further and considering the building, choosing solar power over traditional energy.

Portland Oregon Visitors Association (POVA), a nonprofit group that provides information to Pacific Northwest visitors, did just that when it chose a new Web host.

"When we were searching for a company to host our server, we really wanted one that was 100% green," says Deborah Wakefield, director of communications and public relations for POVA. POVA attempts to respect the intensely environmentalist values of the community it represents, says Wakefield, so "it was only natural that we would look for a Web hosting option whose touch was light on the environment."

While POVA's motives in seeking a solar Web host were primarily environmental, an investment in solar technology brings significant potential cost savings for a forward-thinking company.

"Many buildings with high energy consumption are billed not just for the energy they use, but for the single highest 'peak' in their demand during a billing period," says Colin Murchie, director of government affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association. Solar power can trim these peaks or make them less frequent. Also, the federal government offers rebates and tax credits as an incentive toward energy efficiency, he points out.

Worried about reliability in cloudy weather? Murchie says never fear. In most cases, he says, "solar systems are installed to be fully 'grid-interactive.' If you need more power than they can produce, it's pulled seamlessly off the power grid."

The sheer price of implementing solar energy was once a major roadblock, says King. It used to be that it would take years for such an investment to pay off, he says. "Emerging technologies are going to continue to slice large hunks of time off that."

Plus, with a solar system there is a one-time investment that guarantees a supply of energy for years to come. After implementation, "you've just purchased 20 years or more of electricity at one fixed price," says Murchie. "Knowing what your electric bill will be in 2030 has an appeal to many financial managers when they look at the price trends of conventional energy."

Indeed, the market proves that it's not just environmentally minded companies turning toward solar power. Numerous big-name corporations like Coca-Cola Bottling and Frito-Lay now have solar powered buildings among their corporate facilities.

Efforts toward green building are increasingly common across all industries. The US Green Building Council has a set of recommendations for sustainable building called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. In order to be LEED-certified, a building has to meet specific "green" requirements in a variety of categories like materials selection, water savings, and sustainable development as well as energy efficiency. Again, environmental concerns are not the only reason to consider LEED. Meeting the standards means official certification, which can result in eligibility for government incentives as well as lower operating costs and statistically higher lease-up rates.

Regardless of the means, it's clear that green computing and building brings significant benefits for the corporate setting. Energy consumption cannot be ignored, especially for power-hungry data centers. "A simple trip to the gas station shows you how unstable the whole energy market is," King reminds us. And energy prices are only going to continue rising. With the uncertain direction of the energy market, "green" data centers are sure to have the advantage in years to come.

This was first published in May 2005

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