Discussing Energy Economics on the Internet

Data Centers Belatedly Go Green

Posted by Fereidoon P. Sioshansi on the November 6th, 2008

From the October 2008 issue of EEnergy Informer.

Electricity hungry IT sector, traditionally focused on performance, is coming to grips with energy efficiency.

Electricity usage in the IT business, compromising of servers, data centers, storage devices and communication routers, doubled between 2000 and 2006 and currently account for roughly 1.5% of US electricity consumption. That is a lot of juice and represents a significant carbon footprint.

Ironically, the very same companies that have traditionally manufactured these devices and contributed to the problem are now trying to cash in by offering solutions. It would be similar to arsonists selling fire extinguishers – but that is essentially what is being offered.

The cost of keeping cool

With rising electricity costs and concerns about climate change, hardware giants including International Business Machines Corp., (IBM), Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Dell Inc., are now talking about green data centers – the ultimate oxymoron.

The business potential is simply too large to ignore. Samuel Palmisano, IBM’s CEO, believes that more than 70% of the world’s largest companies will modify, upgrade or replace their existing data centers over the next 5 years in response to rising electricity costs – as well as other business reasons. That must be a lot of equipment to replace.

According to the Wall Street Journal (9 Sep 08), a growing number of clients are now specifically looking for frugal devices as an important criterion in selecting vendors and IT systems. Until recently, clients did not care much about electricity usage of devices they bought – and vendors did not bother to offer energy efficiency as a marketing feature in their sales pitch.

That has radically changed, spawning a new business sector focused exclusively on energy efficiency services to the IT industry. IBM’s new Green Data Center Services – yes, there is such a thing – raked in $300 million in the 4th quarter of 2007 alone.

Naturally, everyone is trying to cash in. Both IBM and HP now offer watercooled servers – a more efficient way to keep the devices cool – bringing back technology that was abandoned in favor of fans and air conditioning. Likewise, Dell has introduced a refrigerated server that requires less air conditioning.

But beyond more efficient ways to keep servers cool, scientists are working on ways to generate less heat in the first place. One promising approach is blade computers, devices that pack more processors in a compact space requiring less air-conditioning. IBM has recently unveiled iDataPlex, a model it claims uses 40% less electricity for the same processing power.

That is not all. As electricity costs escalate, data center operators are finding even more clever ways to reduce energy consumption, including more efficient use of devices, consolidation of data centers and other operational improvements. According to the same WSJ article, Citigroup Inc., for example, has consolidated its massive data centers into 14 from 52, realizing energy efficiencies associated with economies of scale.

Others are finding that their devices are usually operating at a fraction of their full capacity while consuming 100% of the power. There are ways to significantly reduce energy consumption by using virtualization software, which negates the need for having separate servers dedicated to a single application. The analogy would be to switch to an adjustable speed drive in an industrial application.

One only wonders why it has taken the IT industry this long to do the right

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