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EPA report gives data centers little guidance

Initial reaction to a new EPA report calling for greater energy efficiency in the nation's data centers ranges from lukewarm to hostile. Some analysts say the Congress-mandated study doesn't go far enough, while others complain that it attacks the helpless -- you.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report warning of the rising energy toll for running the nation's data centers is getting high-fives from industry vendors who praise the study as a thoughtful look at a complex issue. But initial reaction from some analysts is the report uncovers little that isn't already in the public domain, and it squanders an opportunity to give IT organizations a detailed roadmap -- including meaningful incentives -- for solving a major problem.

"We were looking for a stronger carrot and much bigger stick," said Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at research consultancy Gartner Inc. "The tax incentives are marginal and there should be, in our opinion, some threat of legislation that is going to hit organizations. I look at this, and I think the smart organizations are doing it anyway. You look at the whole report, 80% is data you can pick up off the Web, to be honest."

One of the main findings of the 133-page report is that if current trends continue, energy consumption for U.S. data centers and servers will nearly double by 2011 to more than 100 billion kilowatts per hour (kWh), costing the public and private sectors $7.4 billion annually and requiring an additional 10 power plants.

Kumar said according to Gartner estimates, 4% to 7% of IT budgets on average goes to energy.

"If I am the head of a large organization and I see a part of my budget almost doubling in the next five years and that it may rise even more because it is dependent on global energy prices, I have to start taking prudent action," Kumar said. "This is a major problem and companies will do something irrespective of this report."

Jack Pouchet, director of green initiatives at Emerson Network Power in St. Louis and a contributor to the report, said the EPA's recommendations are vague because it doesn't have enough information to make suggestions.

"To some extent, the EPA was careful in how they wrote what they did. At this point in time, there's not enough data on the table to make a recommendation on what's going on. They really need to do more work. This sets them up to go out and do more intensive research."

The EPA report, published Aug. 2, was developed in response to Public Law 109-431, which was passed by Congress to assess current trends in energy use and costs of U.S. data centers and servers and to outline ways to improve their energy efficiency. The background for the report is the tremendous growth in data centers. As the economy shifts from paper-based to digital information management, the facilities that process, store and send out the data are a cost of doing business for nearly very sector of the economy, the report notes, including one of the largest consumers of data center energy, the U.S. government.

Data center consultant Robert E. McFarlane, an outspoken critic of Congress's legislative track record on technology issues, said he worries that the report, which he agrees breaks little to no ground, gives politicians an easy energy target.

"We all know that Congress never leads; it follows," said McFarlane, president of Interport, a division of Shen, Milsom & Wilke Inc. in New York. "Since we have no real energy policy in this country, this gives Congress and the president an opportunity to push policy that looks good, especially in an election year, and blame the helpless, namely the people running the data centers."

One of the perverse things that may come of all this is that the mainframe may have another life.

Rakesh Kumar, analyst, Gartner Inc.

In 2006 servers and data centers in this country accounted for about 60 billion kWh, or 1.5% of the total U.S. electricity consumption, according to the EPA's report. The tab, which came to $4.5 billion, is more than the electricity consumed by the nation's color televisions and on par with the amount of electricity consumed by about 5% of the total U.S. housing stock. The energy consumption by federal government servers and data centers alone amounts to 10% of the $4.5 billion.

The EPA's report, written with input from major vendors in the data center industry, describes three scenarios (see chart, below) for cutting annual electricity use.

But IT departments have little incentive to push for energy efficiency, especially if that comes at the expense of data performance, Kumar said.

"Bear in mind that these changes involve considerable cost with very little return to show for it. It's not as if they are spending that huge amount and getting a brand new application or a brand new automated integration of their sales package with their inventory package. They may get a bit more compute power, so everything runs a bit faster, but they have to pay a huge amount to run those applications on the next generation of hardware."

The conversion to efficient energy consumption by data centers will require a raft of changes, Kumar and McFarlane said, ranging from bigger government economic incentives to CIOs learning to make the case for IT energy budgets to the board levels at their organizations.

Applause, applause

 APC-MGE, a leading manufacturer of uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) recently acquired by French manufacturer Schneider Electric SA, has worked with the EPA since the mandate from Congress calling for the report, said John Tuccillo, vice president of industry alliances at APC-MGE. Improving data efficiency is a complex problem.

"I gotta tell you, we think the EPA has done a good job of capturing the complexity of the challenge. This is the first time you have actually seen a comprehensive approach to that challenge, taking into account all of the elements that make a data center work," Tuccillo said. "This is the first time a body of work considered both the technology, the process, as well as some of the cultural and operational barriers that data center operators face."

Tuccillo said it's inevitable that the government will play a role in energy efficiency, but endorsed the approach taken by the report to make recommendations rather than mandate.

The response from other vendors echoed those sentiments. Hewlett-Packard Co. put out a release "welcoming" the report as an "important first step in educating customers, policymakers and the public," and touting the company's equipment as well as its own heavily publicized efforts to reduce the environmental impact of data centers.

The reality show

Meanwhile, the IT army in the trenches is acutely aware of the complexity of data and energy efficiency, judging from a quick sampling of CIOs.

Autumn Bayles, former CIO and now senior vice president of strategic operations at Tasty Baking Co. in Philadelphia, said her company has implemented virtualization in an effort to minimize the number of physical servers needed. "This helps to lower capital expenses for servers as well as energy consumption and other expenses associated with their upkeep," Bayles said.

Pete J. Boergermann, associate vice president, MIS technical support manager and IT security officer at Citizens & Northern Bank in Wellsboro, Pa., is tackling the problem from the hardware side. And like McFarlane, he said he's wary of seeing little yellow EnergyStar stickers slapped on servers.

"We're implementing VMware infrastructure management to reduce the number of servers. As we look down the road, I'm sure it [energy consumption] will be a concern," Boegermann said.

On extending Energy Star to servers, he said sleep mode on servers could disrupt a data center's ability to maintain levels of service with servers powering up and down.

"Obviously if you're standing away from the PC and go away to meeting and it goes into sleep mode, it's not a big deal. But if you start turning sleep mode on with servers, that can cause you some problems."

Boergermann said the software industry should share in the responsibility in reducing power consumption. For example, many business applications require huge amounts of server processor capacity to run simple tasks, which cause servers to consume more energy. Boergermann said he has one application that manages his bank's property appraisals. He said just scrolling through a window causes the application to use 100% of its server's capacity. He said an application shouldn't hog so much energy for such a simple task.

"So in this instance we can't put this [appraisal] application on a virtual machine environment because it would be fighting with other applications," Boergermann said. "Let's make applications more efficient. It needs to go back to development stage so that applications are written that are green."

Gartner's Kumar, who said he generally admires the decades-long energy efficiency efforts by leading hardware vendors, especially HP and IBM, also wondered why the Microsofts, Oracles and SAPs of the computing industry have gotten off easily.

"They're some of the biggest culprits. If software is written badly, it uses more power," he said, reminiscing about the efficient code of the mainframe era. "One of the perverse things that may come of all this is that the mainframe may have another life."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer. Kate Evans-Correia and Shamus McGillicuddy contributed to this report.

EPA recommendations -- What you do: What you get
Scenario IT Equipment Site Infrastructure
(Power and cooling)
Improved operation
  • Continue current trends for server consolidation.
  • Eliminate unused servers (e.g., legacy applications).
  • Adopt "energy-efficient" servers to modest level.
  • Enable power management on 100% of applicable servers.
  • Assume modest decline in energy use of enterprise storage equipment.
Thirty percent improvement in infrastructure energy efficiency from improved airflow management.
Best practice All measures in "Improved operation" scenario, plus:
  • Consolidate servers to moderate extent.
  • Aggressively adopt "energy-efficient" servers.
  • Assume moderate storage consolidation.
Up to 70% improvement in infrastructure energy efficiency from all measures in "Improved operation" scenario, plus:
  • Improved transformers and uninterruptible power supplies.
  • Improved efficiency chillers, fans and pumps.
  • Free cooling.
State of the art All measures in "Best practice" scenario, plus:
  • Aggressively consolidate servers.
  • Aggressively consolidate storage.
  • Enable power management at data center level of applications, servers and equipment for networking and storage.
Up to 80% improvement in infrastructure energy efficiency, due to all measures in "Best practice" scenario, plus:
  • Direct liquid cooling.
  • Combined heat and power.

Note: These measures should be considered illustrative of efficiency opportunities in a typical data center. Some measures may only be applicable in new or expansion data centers or may be infeasible for a given data center because of local constraints. Selection of efficiency measures for a particular facility should be based on a site-specific review.
Source: Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency Public Law 109-431, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ENERGY STAR Program

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