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Waiting on green technology is shortsighted, say experts

Waiting for vendors and government agencies to come in and solve your data center cooling and capacity issues is a big mistake, say experts speaking at a data center conference this week.

DALLAS -- CIOs whose data centers struggle with power and cooling issues shouldn't wait for new green computing technologies to come in and save the day. It'll be too late by then, say experts who spoke at the AFCOM Data Center World conference on Monday. Instead, CIOs and data center managers should take simple but practical initiatives to liberate their tapped-out data centers.

Free up capacity in the most straightforward way possible: Turn off some old servers, said conference speaker Mark A. Monroe, director of sustainable computing at Sun Microsystems Inc.

 You can save 4% cooling energy by raising the thermostat one degree.
Mark A. Monroe
director of sustainable computingSun Microsystems Inc.

According to Monroe, data centers "drift" over time. Someone might add a server to a data center to run an application. However, as years go by, the owner of that server moves on and the application that runs on the server is no longer used. But the box (Monroe calls it a "mystery server") continues to run, taking up precious power and cooling capacity in the data center.

"When we started going through some of our big data centers, we found that somewhere between 8% and 10% of our servers had no identifiable function," Monroe said. "There was no program running other than the operating system, that we could tell."

For example, in studying two large companies, Monroe found a number of computers that were unused. "We went through our asset databases and found these servers didn't belong to anybody. So we turn them off and we see if anybody complains. We shut them off and wait until the phone rings. Our success rate in turning those off is something higher than 60%. This is something you can implement in 90 days."

All in all, these two companies found 504 of their 4,300 servers could be shut off without affecting the business.

Such a simple solution can help CIOs make their data centers greener without relying on the marketplace to come up with new technologies. Green computing initiatives are usually driven by data centers that are running out of power, cooling and space, and by executives who want to cut their energy costs and consumption. Turning off unused servers isn't as flashy as adding more energy-efficient servers, but it's a good first step.

EPA to the rescue?

In fact, these seemingly small measures will become critical, as experts say new metrics and technologies will be a long time in coming -- especially from the federal government. During his keynote presentation Monday, Andrew Fanara, leader of the Energy Star Product Specification Development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said the federal government is not considering regulations for energy efficiency in the IT industry.

"We think the there is a federal role to be played here, but we think it's as a catalyst," Fanara said. "This is no time for command and control from the federal government. We hope we can help drive energy efficiency."

Fanara said the federal government will try to stimulate competition on energy efficiency among IT vendors by helping to develop efficiency metrics. One first step will be to create a data center server benchmark in the EPA's Energy Star program, a federal program that labels hardware as energy efficient. The program has mostly limited itself to consumer technology, but Fanara said the EPA wants to expand Energy Star into the commercial space. The EPA is currently reviewing a server performance benchmark set last year by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation as a possible federal benchmark.

CIOs getting squeezed

CIOs say there is not only pressure to save money on energy (which comes from the top), but also pressure from IT operations people who see physical space available in a data centers and can't understand why the facility has no power capacity left.

In cases such as these, Monroe said, "technology refresh" is probably one of the most important examples of how data centers can be made more efficient.

"You can get huge savings, even doing just one-for-one replacement [of servers]," said Monroe, who pointed out that newer servers are more efficient.

"We added thin client servers [in one of our data centers]," Monroe said. "At Sun we have about 29,000 thin clients deployed throughout the world. In one location we replaced 22 of the servers. Just a pure technology refresh. No change to software, no change to functionality, no change to the performance for the users."

Sun replaced those 22 servers on 11 racks with 11 servers on one rack. Energy consumption by the thin client servers was reduced from 617,000 kilowatt hours per year to just 39,000 kilowatt hours per year. While consolidation and virtualization of servers are some of the hottest energy efficiency trends around, Monroe said companies have to pick and choose which applications they virtualize. These projects can be huge and take several years.

"Data center re-commisioning is basically going through your data center with a fine-toothed comb. Fix all the little problems that happen. The tiles in the wrong place. The cable holes that are open and air is blowing through them. There are two CRAC [computer room air conditioning] units next to each other: one heating and one cooling. They're fighting each other. Studies have shown that you can save 15% of the building energy."

CIO might also want to try turning up the thermostats in their data centers.

"Our company spec is 72 degrees," he said. "We studied our data centers and we found that more than half of them were running at 68 degrees. You can save 4% cooling energy by raising the thermostat one degree."

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Monroe said companies can push the specs on data centers. They can raise the set point on the thermostat from 72 to 78 degrees and find ways to manage hot spots. He said you can manage those as you raise the set points and make sure the hot spots are still within specifications.

Michael Inzerillo, senior manager at systems integrator Custom Computer Specialists Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y., said raising the set point in data centers makes him nervous. He worried that running servers at the upper limit of their temperature specifications might have a detrimental effect on the life span of the technology.

But Inzerillo said he was open to trying most of Monroe's suggestions for introducing green computing to the data center today not only in his own company's data center, but also in the data centers of clients who are trying to control their data center budgets.


Let us know what you think about the story; email:Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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