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A LEED-certified data center: Does it matter?

Getting LEED certification for your data center can be an arduous process. Is it worth it, and are there alternatives on the horizon?

CHICAGO -- On the west side of a LEED-certified data center run by Digital Realty Trust Inc., about 15 feet away from the building, is a standalone black ashtray. It sits about three feet high, looks like a pyramid with a tube on top and includes a hole to dispose of cigarettes. On a recent afternoon, construction workers stood outside the building for a quick smoke break. When they were done, they flicked their cigarettes onto the ground, about three feet from the ashtray.

In photos: Digital Realty Trust
Check out photos from Digital Realty Trust's LEED-certified data center.

There's nothing particularly significant about this sequence of events other than the fact that having an ashtray stationed in front of the building helped Digital Realty Trust get LEED certification from the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for a 20,000-square-foot portion of the data center. The ashtray is supposed to help with indoor air quality management.

Over the past couple years, there has been plenty of talk in data center circles about LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The label is one that USGBC, a nonprofit political organization that promotes environmentally friendly building design, devised for all commercial buildings

Is LEED 100% appropriate for data centers? Yes. Is it the best metric? Probably not.
Jim Smith, VP of engineering
vice president of engineeringDigital Realty Trust Inc.

Some data centers have or plan to get LEED certification because of the energy efficiency and public relations benefits. But the industry is also moving to develop a new evaluation system that specifically addresses data centers, mainly because data centers are a different, more power-hungry animal than traditional office environments.

"LEED is a very holistic view of what happens to a building," said Jim Smith, Digital's VP of engineering. "Is LEED 100% appropriate for data centers? Yes. Is it the best metric to decide whether a data center is good or bad? Probably not."

Getting LEED-certified
Although not the first to get LEED-certified – mortgage company Fannie Mae, with its Urbana Technology center in Maryland, and insurer Highmark's data center in central Pennsylvania get that distinction – Digital is the first to get LEED gold-certified, which requires more environmentally friendly design and building practices than the standard certification.

Getting LEED-certified takes a lot more than plopping an ashtray outside your building. Digital went through the process of examining every detail that went into the redesign of its data center, which sits in a historical landmark originally built in 1912. Some of the items were related to IT and data center facilities operation. Others were not. Overall, Smith said that an environmentally friendly design didn't have a major impact on the data center.

For example, Digital installed variable frequency drives in some of the air conditioning units for the data center. It enclosed hot aisle to direct air flow into the exhaust and prevent mixing with cold air. It installed high-performance chillers that Smith said can improve energy efficiency by 25%.

As for items not directly related to the data center, Digital built the area so that more natural lighting could enter the space. A certain percentage of the waste stream is diverted from landfills and recycled. The renovation was done with a lot of local materials: lumber, gypsum, steel. The building is close to a Chicago subway stop. Digital installed a bike rack and changing rooms for bicycle commuters.

For more on data center LEED:
Thinking green, data center aims for LEED certification

Green data center advice: Is LEED feasible?

LEED in the data center: If you can't beat it, copy it

"I'm a bicycle commuter, and those things do have an impact on the building," Smith said. "They're not important if you're focused narrowly on the data center white space."

But why get LEED-certified? First off, there's money to be saved. Smith estimated that initial costs were 2% to 4% higher but that the money saved by being energy efficient pays that back in spades.

Second, there's the public relations benefit. Companies like Digital Realty Trust can put out a press release saying they're LEED-certified, which might help them sell to companies who have some type of green business policy.

It's not easy being green
San Francisco-based 365 Main Inc. realizes the public relations benefit of being green. Earlier this year, the data center hosting company announced that it would build all its future data centers for LEED certification. The first one up is its 136,000-square-foot facility in Newark, Calif.

Miles Kelly, 365 Main's VP of marketing and strategy, has a story to tell about the Newark facility. The company went out of its way to see whether it could build a natural gas co-generation plant on site to be used as the primary power for its clients. First it calculated that the data center would use enough power from its then-primary power source, utility company PG&E Corp., to emit 99,000 tons of carbon a year. The company then determined that having the natural gas plant on site would reduce the number to 78,500 carbon tons a year: a 21% decrease.

365 Main then looked for funding from companies that take carbon offset money and invest it into carbon-reduction projects. But it found that the 21% decrease wasn't enough – those companies could build the same natural gas plant in, say, Peru or Ecuador, where power is generated from extremely dirty sources such as coal, and get a better reduction.

The company didn't stop there. It then went to customers that would lease at the Newark facility and informed them that the carbon reduction was something they could tout in their company press releases. But the reliability of the natural gas plant, 94%, would mean the co-generation engines would be down about 20 days a year. And although the backup power, which would be PG&E, would be 99.8% reliable, customers weren't biting.

"So we went through the entire process and decided not to pursue the natural gas option," Kelly said. "But we're telling the investigation story proudly because it's a ... story of 'It ain't easy being green.' "

365 Main still aims for LEED certification, using high-efficiency chillers, variable-state fans in its air handlers, recycled materials and natural-light settings. But there's no doubt the company is disappointed that it couldn't get the natural gas plant.

"We definitely wanted to have something more substantial," Kelly said. "There's nothing in a LEED certification process that's going to get you 20,000 fewer tons of carbon per year. It doesn't matter how much recycled sheetrock you use."

Data center LEED?
Because LEED certification encompasses broader goals for an entire building, some members of the data center industry have discussed developing an additional points-based system just for data centers.

Industry groups such as the Green Grid, the Uptime Institute and the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) have come to the table to discuss feasibility. Thus far, USGBC has shown no interest in developing a separate distinction for data centers. But that won't necessarily prevent it from happening.

"I'm familiar with LEED and the commercial part of it. I think it does a fantastic job of addressing buildings," said Joe Prisco, IBM senior systems and technology group engineer. "We see data centers as being more energy-intensive per square foot, so where [LEED] seems to fall short is taking into account the energy-intensive nature of the data center."

In the December issue of the ASHRAE Journal, Prisco details an alternative points-based system just for data centers. Focused on energy efficiency, the system assigns points for five different categories: mechanical, electrical, operations, facilities, and efficient practices and innovation. It assigns points for practices such as having air- and water-side economizers, using servers with multicore processors, setting a low relative humidity level, having at least a two-foot raised floor, and having a hot-aisle/ cold-aisle configuration.

Prisco said he just wanted to get a system out there that people could then debate on the merits. As for where the system would be hosted and who would grant the points, Prisco said it's been discussed but is far from solidified. Same goes for whether this points-based system could be tied to data center efficiency metrics that the Green Grid, Uptime Institute, Environmental Protection Agency and others are discussing.

"Wherever it ends up, as long as it's being used, I would be happy," Prisco said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. You can also check out our Server Specs blog.

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