Managing the Energy-Efficient Data Center: A Special Report for CIOs

Green products can cost a bit more than traditional data center gear, but a range of products are now available, says COO Wendy Cebula of VistaPrint Ltd., a $255 million printing company based in Bermuda. They include energy-efficient power supplies, voltage regulators and chips, such as more energy-efficient chipsets from Intel and AMD (a CPU uses more than 50% of the power required to run a server, according to Eaton Corp., an electrical systems and component vendor). New UPS systems lose 70% less energy than older UPS systems at typical loads, according to a Green Grid report.

Two years ago, VistaPrint's data center hosting provider in Bermuda pressured the company to rethink its energy usage because of the rising cost of energy. So, VistaPrint embraced virtual servers to reduce energy usage by 75%, replaced year-old physical servers with energy-efficient ones and bought a set of air conditioners that push hot air outside. "We definitely accelerated investment -- the rollout of some of these changes -- to capture some of the green benefits," Cebula says. VistaPrint expects to save nearly $500,000 over three years and reduce its output of carbon emissions by several tons this year.

Indeed, server virtualization tops the list of best practices for saving energy in the data center (see Energy-saving measures), as many CIOs have been able to consolidate virtual servers onto a handful of physical servers. Along with blade servers from stalwarts IBM, HP and Dell, server virtualization tools from high-flyer VMware (whose IPO this summer raised almost $1 billion) have lifted computing density to new heights.

Best Practices in Energy Conservation
Many CIOs have been able to save energy or just cold hard cash by consolidating virtual servers onto a handful of physical servers.

At $400 million St. Peter's Health Care Services, 110 physical servers were virtualized and consolidated onto five physical servers. At Agile (recently acquired by Oracle), hardware savings drove the virtualization move. Last year, Sunny Azadeh, senior vice president of IT at Agile, was on the verge of purchasing 3,000 servers at $7,000 each. Instead, she implemented virtual servers using products from FastScale Technology and avoided the $2.1 million cost, which over three years turned out to be 2 cents per share. While Azadeh personally wanted to avert the impact that 3,000 servers would have on the environment (and the utility bill), she admits that capital spending and good timing were the real green lights for the project.

Because a data center's inventory turns over every five years or so, CIOs have the opportunity to slowly transform their data centers into energy-efficient ones. They can also adopt best practices to reduce energy usage right now. "The feeling is that there are a lot of easy opportunities out there," says Bill Tschudi, principal investigator for the applications team at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, adding that "30% to 40% improvements is not too hard."

The Sleep Option
One practice among many is to put servers to sleep, much like a screen saver. A typical x86 server consumes 30% to 40% of maximum power even when producing no work at all, according to Eaton Corp., an electrical systems and component vendor. Of course, powering down a server even at night requires some forethought about application spikes and availability. Peter Boergermann of Citizens & Northern Bank in Wellsboro, Pa., warns that sleep mode on servers could disrupt a data center's ability to maintain levels of service, as servers power up and down. "Obviously, if you're standing away from the PC and go away to a meeting and it goes into sleep mode, it's not a big deal," he says. "But if you start turning sleep mode on with servers, that can cause you some problems."

Another good practice is to make sure power supplies are properly sized for the load. IT equipment is rated to work with input power voltages ranging from 100 volts to 240 volts of alternating current, yet most equipment runs off lower voltage power. Eaton, for example, says an HP ProLiant DL380 Generation 5 server operates at 82% efficiency at 120 volts, 84% at 208 volts, and 85% at 230 volts.

"A power supply is most efficient when it's used as close to its capacity as possible," says Paul Hammann, data center architect at Powerset, a developer of a natural language search engine. These energy-saving techniques don't seem like much, he says, but they all add up.

-- TK

This was first published in November 2007

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