Predictions about energy-efficient technologies saving data centers significant money that could be plowed into other parts of the operation have largely failed to materialize.
As data centers pack and stack server racks to generate more raw processing power to fuel cloud computing initiatives, so too are they investing in a range of energy-efficient cooling technologies.
Unfortunately, cooling technologies can't keep pace with the tidal wave of servers and have yet to produce the anticipated return on investment (ROI) in green data centers.
Some look at the greening of a data center as an oxymoron.
Most energy savings realized today come from the power efficiencies built into server processors.
"Data centers aren't saving money through better energy efficiencies or cooling technologies as they are through the power consumption improvements built into server chips themselves," said Greg Carl, solutions architect with SyCom Technologies, a client-focused IT systems integration company based in Richmond, Va.
Typically, it can take three years -- sometimes longer -- for a midsize or larger green data center to realize a return on their energy efficiency investments.
Three years ROI is acceptable to most data center professionals, although they would prefer something closer to two, according to Steve Harris, vice president of data center development for Forsythe Technology Inc., an IT infrastructure integrator located in Skokie, Ill.
Because energy-efficient green technologies take longer to show a return, data center executives must decide early on just how much green they can afford to buy into without going over budget. Sometimes, that turns out to be not quite enough given their growing server population, Harris said.
"Data centers in general are not all that green to begin with. It takes a lot of power to run one," Harris said. "Some look at the greening of a data center as an oxymoron."
Lack of green data center innovation
One reason energy-efficient and green data center technologies have produced disappointing ROI is a general lack of technical innovation.
"Refrigeration hasn't changed much since we started putting blocks of ice in the ice box in the 1900s. A lot of the improvements [in cooling technologies] are just marketing hype," said Chris McLean, director of design and construction for the multi-tenant data center operator Markley Group based in Boston.
Forsythe is now building a 221,000 sq. ft. data center in Elk Grove, Ill. that will feature private suites with dedicated power and cooling infrastructure. The facility will use a pumped refrigerant type of air conditioning that allows Forsythe to offer individualized air conditioning on a per-suite basis and will achieve power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratios on par with chilled water systems.
"Until very recently, an air-based cooling system couldn't achieve the same PUE levels as a water-based chiller system. This is a big breakthrough for the design we want to bring to market," Harris said.
Fuel cells could spark a green data center breakthrough on the power side, but that is a few years away in terms of broad-based acceptance. The initial costs associated with implementing fuel cells, along with an adult dose of inertia, have held back many data centers from either swapping out or complimenting their current energy source with fuel cells.
"I think [fuel cells] need a major adopter like Google or someone with a petabyte data center," Carl said. "IT hasn't changed that much over the years; it's still about keeping up with the Joneses. If they see someone else doing it and their customers are happy, then they tend to have a lot of followers."
Greener pastures for Microsoft?
That major adopter could be Microsoft. Last month the company demonstrated its fuel cell concept at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. The company showed off a rack of servers powered by the data center output of a fuel cell stack, which eliminates much of the power infrastructure needed in a traditional data center. This cuts down on potential hardware and software failures that lead to crippling outages.
Microsoft did admit, however, that off-the-shelf fuel cells have a "levelized cost of energy" that can't compete with traditional power generation, although they have the potential to be much less expensive. Microsoft said the electrical efficiency from the fuel stack to the server improved 53% from 39.8% with conventional electricity hardware.
Some IT shops, however, found that a way to reduce energy costs is to move part, or all, of their data center to a modern, well-equipped colocation provider. Some said it is worth it financially in terms of lowering energy costs, but that it also removes the stress of managing one more critical cost.
"Our [Hewlett Packard] servers are much more power-efficient and, along with the [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] being tied in through the Markley [Group], energy costs is something I don't think about any more," said Mike Yarosh, director of IT services at W.B. Mason, based in Brockton, Mass.
"When you manage power in your own facility, it's a full-time job, but that full-time job is now Markley's."
Landlords like Markley pay for the cooling and lighting as part of a tenant's lease, McLean said. So negotiating a better lease could be one way for tenants to save on electrical costs, although he admitted the economic gains can be marginal.
"Their lease usually includes lighting and cooling, so [service providers] can't pass on savings to customers per se unless they have a triple net release, which is very atypical,'' McLean said.