Energy-efficient data centers are here to stay

The EPA’s July report to Congress on server and data center energy efficiency explains what it means to the data centers we’ve come to rely upon.

By Bruce Myatt, P.E., principal partner with EYP Mission Critical Facilities, San Francisco, and founder of the Critical Facilities Round Table. September 19, 2007

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in response to Public Law 109-43 that has set a new direction for

Clearly, this direction is long overdue, as we have designed and operated our IT facilities for a solid decade with a single-minded focus on “uptime.” And now, many of us operate our legacy data centers with the throttle “wide open,” with absolutely no control over how to manage our server utilization, or how to reduce the power and cooling we inject into IT spaces.

EPA’s report accomplished three major objectives for Congress and sends a clear message to us about where we are headed. The report 1) assesses trends in server and data center energy use and costs, 2) outlines opportunities for improved energy efficiency, and 3) makes recommendations for pursuing these opportunities on a broad basis across the country.

The report’s trends assessment estimates that our data center industry consumed about $4.5 billion and 1.5% of all U.S. electricity in 2006, requiring the generation of 15 electrical power plants. It projects that by 2011 we will consume $7.4 billion of electricity annually, requiring the construction of 10 more major power plants. Because recent DOE and EPA policies have consistently discouraged the construction of new power plants for both economic and environmental reasons, it just makes sense that regulators will now get aggressive about how we use energy in our data centers.

The report goes on to outline three scenarios aimed at improving energy use in our IT spaces. The first scenario is called “improved operations” and includes elementary changes such as server power management and airflow controls to reduce our unnecessary waste of energy. The second is referred to as “best practices,” which includes the implementation of new technologies such as energy-efficient servers and free cooling through airside and waterside economizers. And, the last scenario is called “state-of-the-art,” which takes us into the next generation of data center operations with aggressive server and storage consolidation and virtualization to reduce our space requirements, and then liquid cooled racks and servers to more effectively remove the heat loads from our equipment.

The EPA projects that we can save 30%, 70%, and 80% respectively of our current electricity demand by achieving each of three these scenarios …ion can make us self-sufficient and more reliable at the same time–if we do it right.

Also, the report recommends to Congress nine broad based initiatives intended to bring together the executive management of America’s corporations with federal, state, and municipal governments, and with our electrical utilities in order to formalize a public-private partnership for energy efficiency in data centers. It presents specific and realistic guidelines for programmatic energy efficiency improvements in support of those initiatives.

The report concludes that Congress should treat these findings as a “vision” for future data center energy efficiency and that subsequent federal initiatives should build upon this study in ways that will lead to new industry standards of performance.

The executive summary of EPA’s report to Congress is a must-read for anyone who expects to have a future in the data center industry. Both the complete report and the summary can be found online at here.

The bottom line

So what can we conclude from all of this high-level rhetoric? What does it mean to us data center owners and operators who just want to make sure that our IT operations never fail?

Well, first of all, I suggest that we prepare for one of the most exciting eras ever in the evolution of servers and data centers! We have now initiated legislation that will change the way that we design and operate our data centers for years to come.

But the best way for me to try to answer that question is to share some of the activities that we see happening around Silicon Valley, which is, after all, the home of most of our IT developments, new and old alike.

The IT advances that now are available in Silicon Valley are simply astounding. Chip manufacturers have developed multi-core, interlaced (or threaded) processors that will far exceed processing speeds and efficiencies that we have in our data centers today. Virtualization products allow us to take advantage of the full capacity of our technology by consolidating our applications onto fewer processors. And new high-density servers and appliances allow us to consolidate our operations into many fewer and smaller boxes.

When we implement these measures together we find that we have a much more efficient IT infrastructure, and a lot of obsolete data center space that we just don’t need any more.

Look at what’s happening already

Virtually all of the major server manufacturers have announced new facilities based solutions for energy efficiency operations for their customers. Sun Microsystems , for example, just released the results of its “Server Consolidation” methodology to minimize data center space and power and cooling.

HP’s “ Dynamic Smart Cooling ” system introduced earlier this year demonstrates an instrumentation and controls approach to optimizing HVAC systems performance and saving energy costs.

Dell and IBM also have developed unique methods to help their customers save energy in their data center facilities.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group energy committee is financing technology demonstrations at several sites. At Network Appliance in Sunnyvale, Calif., for example, they are proving the value of segregating HVAC supply and return air flows. They have accomplished this by dropping plastic sheets from the ceiling to fully enclose their hot aisles. This physical barrier fully prevents the recirculation of hot air and accurately controls server inlet temperatures. That allows them to elevate their supply air temperatures to about 70° F, saving energy in their mechanical plant operations.

They also are able to greatly increase the use of their airside economizers because of the higher supply air temperatures, resulting in exceptional HVAC energy savings. And they have demonstrated all this in a legacy data center without compromising the integrity of their fire protection systems. The return on investment for this improvement boils down to a just a few months. Visit here .

San Francisco-based collocation provider 365 Main Inc. announced that they will certify their data centers to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED requirements. That means that they will be more energy-efficient, more operationally efficient, and more environmentally friendly. Visit here . Fujitsu inaugurated its first data center fuel cell in Santa Clara, Calif., on Aug. 17. The system continuously provides for 50% of the facility mechanical plant electricity needs. This is a technology that is as environmentally friendly as possible, applied in a way that introduces little risk to the availability of their critical facility.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) is designing a new Computational Research and Theory supercomputing facility in Berkeley, Calif., intended to serve as a model of energy efficiency for all data centers and computational facilities across the country. They are said to be considering a combination of some of the most aggressive mechanical and electrical plant energy solutions available.

DOE has tasked LBNL’s Research & Development Group with the development of a data center energy efficiency audit program. Save Energy Now ” program allows you to receive updates and join technical working groups. More information about the program can be viewed online.

Finally, an anonymous Internet giant in the neighborhood is said to be developing a “fan free” air circulation system to cool its servers. Relying upon natural convection and server fans only, their data centers may require no computer room air-conditioner units or plug fans at all to drive the air circulation in their data centers. Now, that is progress!

How can we do our part

With all that said, many of us like to consider the EPA report to be a formal announcement ushering in a new era of data center energy efficiency and operating efficiency alike. Along with the formation of private industry’s activities at the Green Grid, the Green Building Council, and similar “green” organizations, the future is inevitable. Data center designers and operators will have to make very deliberate efforts to keep abreast of the innovative technologies and best practices that are coming down the pike at us.

On Sept. 20, our Critical Facilities Round Table (CFRT) will meet with Andrew Fanara, director of the EPA’s EnergyStar program and author of this report to Congress, in Silicon Valley. The group will support Congressional objectives by bringing together representatives of industry and government with the purpose of advancing the cause of energy efficiency in data centers.

CFRT is a non-profit organization, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, dedicated to the success of our member critical facilities owners and operators. Please visit CFRT’s Web site or contact us at 415-748-0515 for more information.

Bruce Myatt, P.E.,tor fabs, nuclear power plants, and U.S. DOE’s nuclear weapons production facilities. He recently has led work for LBNL and PG&E related to data center energy efficiency benchmarking, technology demonstration, and design and retro-commissioning programs. Myatt actively has pioneered server cooling solutions that isolate air flow in order to prevent air “recirculation” and “short-circuiting” in data center environments.Contact Myatt at