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Efficient energy use and energy security in the data center

Energy efficiency in the data center is a growing trend, but a true focus on efficient energy use sometimes requires a greater financial incentive.

Efficient energy use has become a central issue in data center design and management. Energy costs are always increasing, and even the availability of power can be a gating issue for data center construction or facility expansion. Having enough energy, and managing the cost of that energy, will be important themes at the upcoming Uptime Institute Symposium slated to run May 9-12 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Steve Bigelow, senior technology editor with SearchDataCenter.com, sits down with Matt Stansberry, directory of content and publications for the Uptime Institute, to discuss the effects of energy use on the data canter.

You can also listen to a podcast of this Q&A here:

Bigelow: How do you see the focus on efficient energy use in the data center and its corresponding costs changing over the next couple of years?

Stansberry: The data center industry will stay focused on energy efficiency over the next few years. There are a lot of early adopters that saw the energy crisis on the horizon five years ago and started doing things like server virtualization, extreme isolation of the hot and cold aisles, deploying variable frequency drive fans and raising server inlet air temps.

But there are a lot of companies that still have a long way to go. It starts with the basic maintenance best practices, [such as] blocking hot and cold air mixing, that Uptime, Dr. Bob Sullivan and SearchDataCenter.com have been talking to folks about for years.

Uptime Institute recommends all data center owners and operators take a staged approach to efficient energy use. Starting with low-cost, low-risk efficiency improvements, data center managers can reap huge savings from existing facilities without any new or expensive technology fixes.

Bigelow: We've seen new standards like [power usage effectiveness] PUE, but what other means of quantifying energy efficiency should we be looking at over the next year or two?

Stansberry: People absolutely need to take a look at The Green Grid's website.

The Uptime Institute is partnering with The Green Grid and the authors of the maturity model to run a test bed. We have a network of elite data center owners and operators who will be using the self assessment tool, plotting where they fall on the chart and providing feedback on how to improve the toolset. It's definitely something everyone who runs a data center needs to take a look at.

Bigelow What factors and technologies are really having the biggest affect on efficient energy use in the data center today, and how will those factors play out over the next year or two?

Stansberry: Data center facilities managers led the first charge to improve data center energy efficiency. Future improvements in data center efficiency will depend on getting IT practitioners to take the next steps.

IT operations staff can drive exponential improvements in data center efficiency and effectiveness. IT organizations that are willing to take a systematic approach, starting at the application and data layers – consolidating applications and servers, deduplicating data, removing comatose, but power-draining servers, building redundancy into the applications and IT architecture rather than physical systems — will drive the next wave of efficiency gains.

But IT pros don't have the financial incentives to target efficiency. We just launched a survey and found that in around 75% of data centers, the facilities teams are still paying the electric bill – not the IT department. Unless you shift that cost structure over to the IT team, they really won't have the incentives to make smart choices about power. This is one of those things we've been talking about for years, and I thought we'd seen – at least in SearchDataCenter.com surveys over the years – a shift to more IT departments picking up the power bill. But this new data from Uptime's survey shocked me.

Bigelow: Considering the unrest in the Middle East and the tragic consequences of natural disasters in Japan, how is the consideration of energy security changing?

Stansberry: Well, I don't think those particular issues will have much of an impact on U.S. electricity availability. In this country, we're sitting on a lot of coal and natural gas. And the sad truth is that our nation is not serious about managing carbon. So, in the short term, which really is the lifecycle of most data centers, there isn't much energy security risk in the U.S. In other parts of the world, there are definitely capacity constraints, and that's something our professional services team can speak to. We have data center certifications in about 20 countries, and I know energy security is a bigger issue in other places.

But beyond energy security, there are some risks in the U.S. today. Facebook has 100,000 users demanding its data centers “unfriend” coal after news broke that the social media giant had chosen a utility provider with primarily coal-based power generation. SearchDataCenter.com broke that story back in January 2010.

One of the world's top banks is a member of the Uptime Institute network, and the public relations impacts and business consequences of energy use in data centers is something that keeps their executives up at night. So, while there is a lot of dirty energy available in the U.S., it might not be in your company's best interest to rely too heavily on it.

Bigelow: What can businesses do now to strengthen their energy security?

Stansberry: Cogeneration. There are data center operators today using wind and solar power to generate some of their energy. We have a panel at the symposium [of] data center owners and operators that are using renewable technologies in their data centers and talking about the rewards and challenges.

Businesses can also take a hard look at extreme efficiency in their future data centers. Information is becoming more available on how some of the Web-scale data center operators like Facebook are achieving huge energy savings. With Facebook open-sourcing its latest custom server and facility designs, a lot more of this information will be available to the general public for the first time, and the entire Facebook data center team will be giving a keynote on their project, along with data center folks from Google, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo. I expect a lot of new information and ideas to be released to the public in the coming months.

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