Green-energy technologies a priority across all IT operations

Green-energy technologies for enterprise data centers include end-row cooling, geothermal heating and other innovative ideas for IT operations at large.

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Enterprises are looking at a host of green-energy technologies and sustainability efforts for data centers and

IT operations overall. With these, they hope to save money and come into compliance with environmental regulations down the line.

"What are best practices today become standards tomorrow, and eventually become code," said William Dunckel, energy solutions manager at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), a California energy supplier whose customers include thousands of data centers. There are plenty of ways to get green, according to Dunckel, who has been working on energy solutions since the 1970s.

For many enterprises, virtualization is job one

"Our first step to making everything more green is to virtualize our application servers," said Jon Nam, director of technology at Macy's Merchandising Group Inc. (MMG) in New York and a member of its Sustainability Task Force. As its data center footprint gets smaller, MMG is using less power, generating less heat and reducing the need for air conditioning, he said. MMG also is switching to thin blade servers that require less energy, and condensing server racks, he added.

But thinking small doesn't mean skimping on compute power. Nam recently purchased two servers "with gigs and gigs of memory and cores and cores of CPUs. Every couple of years you have to replace servers anyway, so maybe you buy something a little more robust," he said.

Increasing interest in green-energy technologies

MMG's Sustainability Task Force embraced such ideas as duplex printing, which saved 15% on toner use and more than 1.5 million pages of paper per month for a cost savings of $20,000 to $30,000 per month. The company replaced manually operated office lights with motion-sensor models, and changed its Active Directory policy so that when employees leave their computers on overnight, the program forces them into sleep mode.

The MMG task force includes employees from the operations, legal, IT and product design departments, according to Nam. "We are entrusted by the president to explore every idea to become more sustainable," he said. "People look at me to help with the technology piece and make sure we move down the right path."

Like MMG, three-fourths of U.S. organizations are working to reduce their IT operations' energy use, according to the "2010 Energy Efficient IT Report" by CDW LLC, a technology solutions provider in Vernon Hills, Ill.

Of the 756 IT professionals who responded to the CDW survey, two-thirds said they are deploying more power-efficient core switches, replacing edge and workgroup switches with more power-efficient ones, and using the network as a platform to manage and reduce energy use. This group also is adopting 10 Gigabit Ethernet InfiniBand technologies; reducing its storage area network infrastructure by implementing Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE; and moving to top-of-rack models for access layer switching.

End-row and end-rack cooling systems will become standard.

John Phelps, research vice president, Gartner Inc.

The trend to higher-density cabinets and racks will continue unabated through 2012, according to John Phelps, research vice president at Gartner Inc., which this week is hosting its 29th annual data center conference. By 2015, more than 50% of all new data center builds will not use a raised floor -- up from 3% today -- but will build on slab using end-row and end-rack cooling solutions, such as jointless liquid pipes, according to Gartner. "End-row and end-rack cooling systems will become standard," reducing energy consumption by as much as 15%, he said.

Raised floors historically were used to shield the bulky cables and enable air flow, but today's cables are thin and more maneuverable in overhead troughs, Phelps said. A lot of companies are looking at air economizers; in fact, many data centers' existing equipment already has air handlers with economizer modes -- disabled since the time when energy was not the issue it is today. It's important to pay attention to floor layouts, not only with respect to hot and cold aisles, but also with regard to the distance air needs to travel: Reducing that distance reduces the workload on air handling equipment, Phelps said.

Visionary ideas for green-energy technologies

PG&E's Dunckel would like nothing better than to throw open a data center's windows to cool machines with 80-degree air. "It is possible to build servers that don't need the dainty environment," he said: "There are servers in Iraq running in Humvees at 130 degrees; a Cisco switch can endure 90 degrees." A lot of people are playing with turning up the temperature, he added.

As Dunckel drafts a document to define the basis of a request for proposal for a new data center, he is looking, not at water cooling but at geothermal technology for heating and cooling "because of the water restrictions we may see in ten years."

Dunckel also has thought of a server design that switches the power light and label that's now on the front with the fan that's now on the back; that way, the hot air will blow out the front and get sucked into a vacuum tube in the walls. Alas, he's not the first to think of it. Innovative ideas abound: doing backup using the utility grid instead of an uninterruptible power supply, for example.

But it isn't just a technology matter, as the boundaries have begun to blur between facilities -- like air conditioning -- and hardware and software, IT's traditional stomping grounds. The key for CIOs will be to partner with the people who manage facilities to achieve the best results.

"You now have equipment tied together through hardware and software, with monitoring people springing out of the woodwork to show you all kinds of graphics." Dunckel said. "CIOs and facilities guys are going to get a lot closer."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

This was first published in December 2010

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