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Consolidation, compliance pushing demand for a green data center

CIOs see the benefits of a green data center as lower costs and leadership props, experts say. Here's the skinny on green data center certifications and enabling technologies.

John Phelps was not surprised when the Gartner Data Center Conference roundtable he's hosting -- its subject is the green data center -- was the first to fill up with reservations. He's been speaking about green IT for a few years now, and says the topic has just "gelled" for CIOs this year.

In the past, conference audiences were a mix of a few IT managers looking at the green data center for its environmental benefits, and more people looking to the concept to save money, said Phelps, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "Now we have both: the first group looking to save money, and the others realizing that with the possibility of regulations, 'I might bypass problems if I pay attention to the green issue too,'" he said.

Indeed, green IT has gone from a whisper to a shout. Understanding best practices in energy-efficient IT is critical to their profession, said two-thirds of IT managers responding to a recent survey by CDW LLC. The percentage of organizations that cite energy efficiency as a key consideration when they buy new IT equipment jumped from 26% in 2009 to 39% in 2010, according to CDW's third annual Energy Efficient IT Report. The Vernon Hills, Ill.-based IT solutions provider, which surveyed 756 IT professionals in the public and private sectors for the report, also found that 79% of organizations are consolidating data centers or have a strategy to do so, with many citing energy reduction as a top driver.

Many organizations now have a corporate social responsibility policy, Phelps said, and visionary CIOs view green IT as the future: They want to "get on the front end of this, get good credit for IT -- and by doing it, also save money and show a double dip."

Green data center certifications

Enterprises in such large sectors as banking, health care and insurance are all "bullish to look at green technologies--that has definitely changed since last year," said Jeff Cross, director of business development for data center designer CH2M HILL Companies Ltd. and IDC Architects in Portland, Ore.

Notably, many of these enterprises have been moving to greener data center architectures, but have not been certified according to a green data center standard, for example, those in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, Cross said.

"In the last year, [IT] has realized the value of getting the [certification] plaque," Cross said.

LEED is an internationally recognized system for providing third-party verification that a building or community has been designed and built to save energy, use water efficiently, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, improve indoor environmental quality and manage its resources.

One of the problems with the LEED system, however, is that it does not have a data center-specific certification, according to Phelps. "There has been a green building certification," he said, "but not a data center one -- although they're working on it. Most buildings are designed to have a lot of people, but a data center has a lot of power and few people."

In the last year, IT has realized the value of getting the certification plaque.

Jeff Cross, director of business development, CH2M HILL Companies Ltd. and IDC Architects

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has partnered with the Department of Energy to create Energy Star certifications for data centers, as it has for such consumer devices as microwaves. The voluntary rating system helps energy managers assess how efficiently their buildings use energy compared with to similar buildings nationwide. Organizations can rate their energy use through Energy Star Portfolio Manager, an interactive tool that allows the user to track a building's energy and water consumption in a secure online environment. A building's energy performance is indicated as a number from one to 100. A rating of 75 indicates that the building performs better than 75% of all similar buildings.

The European community has a data center energy-efficiency code of conduct, which is not mandatory, although once an organization agrees to move in that direction, it becomes "sort of mandatory," Phelps said. Some U.S. businesses, including Microsoft, have signed on with the code.

Certifications are voluntary so far, but that could change as governments worldwide become more serious about reducing emissions, experts said. Improving the energy efficiency of America's data centers by just 10% would save more than 6 billion kWh every year, enough to power more than 350,000 homes and save more than $450 million annually, according to the EPA. The world's data centers will outstrip the airline industry in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a 2008 McKinsey & Co. study projected.

A green data center world

So, how can enterprises become certified as green? According to Phelps, IT managers are looking at air cooling economizers, end-row and end-rack cooling and containment, and new designs that do away with the raised floor -- once the definition of a data center. Phelps predicts that by 2015, more than 50% of new data center buildings will not have a raised floor, up from 3% today. Instead, enterprises will opt for more maneuverable overhead troughs for cables, and such emerging technologies as jointless liquid-cooling pipes that eliminate the possibility of bursting at the seams, he said.

Phelps also sees a big increase in the use of tools for monitoring, managing and controlling power that combine traditional infrastructure tools with metrics that are more IT-oriented. "We call them data center infrastructure management, or DCIM, tools," he said. "A lot of people are getting into this area to provide dashboards that allow IT to see energy usage and move workloads around."

No matter what kind of green technology you adopt, the key is matching the site-specific environment to the technology option, according to CH2M HILL Companies' Cross. In data centers, there are four critical factors, he said: site location; humidity; temperature; and seasonality, or seasonal variation. "What's the mission? The heat load to dissipate. It comes down to being willing to do hot and cold segregation," he said.

Ensuring the proper environment for IT systems is essential to maintaining high availability, according to experts. Regardless of the application, IT equipment produces heat that can interrupt service and cause damage, both to the data center -- and to the earth.

Beyond the feel-good reasons, however, being green boils down to cost. At present growth rates, today's IT energy bills are a fraction of what they'll be in the future, according to Gartner. At current pricing, within three years the operating expense (energy) to support an x86 server will exceed the cost of the server.

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

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