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Data center efficiency tools, services litter the landscape

Energy-efficiency tools are supposed to help data centers understand that energy efficiency frees resources for compute-intensive activities and reduces costs. But do they?

Caring about the carbon footprint and efficiency of your company's data center isn't just for tree huggers. Being energy efficient can save millions of dollars and free up power for computing needs. That's why several companies now offer tools and services – some free of cost, some more costly – designed to help data centers save on power.

Over the past decade -- and despite the recent focus on "green computing" -- there's been a significant increase in data center power consumption. In 2000, U.S. data centers used 25 billion kWh of energy; by the end of 2008, that number will more than triple to some 80 billion kWh, according to a 2007 report on data center energy use from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And a recent survey by the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Uptime Institute Inc., indicates that 92% of data center respondents expect power consumption to increase, despite efforts to save energy in one or more areas.

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Still, while reducing carbon footprint is no longer simply an environmental concern, data centers haven't fully connected the dots on how such measures increase data center efficiency and reduce costs. The ostensible goal of data center energy-efficiency tools is to help data centers make that connection -- and make the business case.

Quitting carbon cold turkey
Several companies have committed to becoming carbon neutral by instituting power-efficient technologies in their data centers. The most prominent example is Google, which in 2007 promised to become carbon neutral by this year, and claims its data centers are the most efficient in the world.

Unfortunately, this is an area where you get exactly what you pay for.
Ken Brill,
executive directorthe Uptime Institute

Though Google did not respond to a request for more information on how its data center achieved such efficiency, the company posted a five-step plan for data center efficiency on its website. The tactics include minimizing server and data center facility electricity consumption, conserving fresh water by using recycled water, reusing or recycling all electronic equipment that leaves Google's data centers and engaging with industry peers to advance smarter energy practices.

Efficiency tools abound
For companies aspiring to Google-esque levels of data center efficiency, a starting place may be the energy-efficiency measurement tools and consultancy services for data centers. Some tools and services are free, while others can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), for example, has developed a data center efficiency tool, DC Pro that analyzes 12 months' worth of a data center's utility bills to answer specific questions about electricity distribution, airflow management and data center cooling. DC Pro also provides suggestions for improving efficiency.

Then there's Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International Inc., whose new Carbon Calculator calculates current and proposed electricity costs and savings, CO2 equivalent emissions and reductions, and carbon emissions and reductions.

American Power Conversion (APC) also offers free data center infrastructure calculation tools, which are called APC Tradeoff Tools, while Connecticut-based Aperture Technologies and San Francisco-based CSRware sell software to analyze a data center's efficiency.

CSRware's Software as a Service (SAAS) platform enables data centers managers to analyze and act on efficiency initiatives. "A lot of the tools available today have you punch in data and give you an answer," said Karen Alonardo, CSRware's founder. "Our tool offers real-time results for the areas you are interested in analyzing and improving upon, whether it be energy or waste or saving on water [from cooling]," Alonardo said. "Our metrics will tell you what ways to improve what you are doing."

CSRware's tool also reports how a data center's energy efficiency compares with other facilities around the world, she said.

Other companies include efficiency tools in a larger product. Milford, N.H.-based Degree Controls Inc., for example, has developed active airflow management products that include airflow monitoring tools to control cooling. With the product, said Wally Phelps, a product line marketing manager, data centers can run at warmer temperatures and save energy.

"We have active airflow movers to bring cooling to the right areas only when it is needed, so you are saving energy on cooling," Phelps said. "Many data centers don't have experts in the area of data center cooling, so our central control choreographs everything properly, and we do remote monitoring over a secure VPN [virtual private network] line to monitor the heat on a daily basis."

According to Phelps, most customers see energy efficiency as an added benefit but not the main driver to adopt these tools. "Most people come to us with a problem that needs solving. It isn't so much that they want to save energy, but they need to add equipment in the data center and don't want to have to expand," Phelps said.

Beyond software
These are just a handful of many tools available, and while the freebies can give IT a rough idea of where changes need to be made, data center efficiency doesn't start with a software tool, according to Ken Brill, the executive director of the Uptime Institute.

"Unfortunately, this is an area where you get exactly what you pay for," said Brill. "And even if you pay a lot, you still may not get what you need. The fundamental issue is engineering competence for which software is not a substitute."

Brill is probably right, though his comments may involve some bias; the Uptime Institute offers paid consultancy services.

Brill recommended hiring a third party to conduct in-depth efficiency measurements because "people make mistakes or intentionally fudge" results when they do their own, he said.

Other data center efficiency consultancies include the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit data center research and consulting group.

RMI's suggestions for designing efficient data centers include deploying virtualization and the most efficient server hardware available, efficient airflow management systems, low-watt lighting and economizers for cooling.

"It is possible to provide computing services at 95% to 99% more efficiency than we do today," said RMI's Bryan Palmintier. "By deploying all of the possible efficiency options, a 100-watt data center could, conceivably, drop to only 5 watts."

"Even if you don't care about your carbon footprint or power costs, there is a business case for building efficiently; you are freeing your power capacity for more computing," Palmintier said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer. And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro

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