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CIOs save green by going green in the data center

CIOs who are using green IT options to improve energy efficiencies in their data centers are also seeing improved cost savings.

CIO Rick Peltz doesn't mince words when it comes to green IT.

"I'm very concerned over the environment, but do I do anything specific to accommodate it? The answer is no," Peltz said. "To be honest with you, it's not important."

But that doesn't mean Peltz's IT department at Encino, Calif.-based Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services Inc. doesn't do its part to conserve energy. Peltz said he plans to add several American Power Conversion Corp. (APC) server racks to Marcus & Millichap's Chicago data center to do just that. His motivation, however, is economic, not environmental.

"We're always looking to cut back on power," Peltz said, "but we're looking at it strictly from an economic perspective."

Whatever his motives, Peltz is smart to focus on energy efficiency in his data center, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that power consumption by U.S. data centers and servers will double by 2011. As it stands, data centers and servers account for 1.5% of the nation's energy use, about 61 billion kilowatt-hours in total, the EPA reported in August.

For CIOs, that means the time is now to "take responsibility" and plan for significant data center growth in order to avoid wasted energy and wasted dollars, according to Gartner analyst Rakesh Kumar.

"Since the late 1990s, there just [hasn't been] the investments going in to building new facilities," Kumar said, meaning data center space is running short, while energy prices continue to rise. Making the most of limited floor space and reducing energy-related costs, then, are the main drivers toward more efficient data centers.

Social pressures to "go green" will play a small part, Kumar said, but "nobody is adopting energy-efficient practices just for the good of the environment."

Data center efficiency options

The first step in any energy-efficiency planning, Kumar said, is to get a handle on current data center energy usage. "Get some basic metrics in place," he said, then conduct a trend study to predict future energy use. Both analyses can be easily accomplished with any number of tools from vendors like IBM, Aperture Technologies Inc., APC and others, Kumar said. "This is not complicated stuff."

Next, CIOs should make the most of their current infrastructure. Most servers are using only between 5% and 10% of capacity, Kumar said. Through virtualization and consolidation, CIOs can tap into a server's full potential, making them much more efficient. But Kumar said something as simple as just turning off servers that aren't being used, which still consume nearly 80% as much energy as working servers, can significantly reduce power consumption.

Once current and future energy demands are established, CIOs have a number of options to meet them, including refurbishing existing facilities and building or acquiring new data center space. Refurbishing and rebuilding, however, can be costly and require intensive planning, Kumar said. Heating and cooling demands and adequate power supplies must be taken into consideration, as well as IT man-hours needed to maintain and troubleshoot unexpected problems.

A third option CIOs should consider, Kumar said, is moving data centers to third-party, hosted environments. Hosted space is specifically designed to make the most efficient use of power to data centers and servers, and hosted data center providers are up to speed with the latest energy saving technologies. "The net result is that leasing space from a well-designed, modern data center hosting provider can yield financial and operational benefits," Kumar wrote in a recent Gartner report.

In fact, Kumar said he expects demand for hosted data centers to increase dramatically over the next several years as CIOs shed fears of offloading sensitive data to outside parties and grasp the scope of potential energy costs savings. CIOs should act now to secure good deals for hosted data center sites, Kumar said, before the market heats up and prices rise.

Hosted data center pays dividends

One CIO who's ahead of the hosted data center curve is Portola Packaging Inc.'s Ara Chakrabarti. Portola, a consumer packaging vendor based in Batavia, Ill., moved its data center to a hosted environment, in this case to a space run by colocation specialist XO Communications Inc., in December 2005. Chakrabarti said Portola's in-house data center, which was carved into a section of a much larger overall facility, had simply become too power hungry, expensive and time-consuming to run.

"Our decision was that we should move to a colocation facility where the environment is highly optimized for power consumption, for space utilization, environmental/HVAC issues," Kumar said. "Their capabilities and their infrastructure are significantly, by a power of two or three, better than what we had."

With XO now responsible for powering its data center -- Portola still manages the servers itself -– Chakrabarti said the company has reduced energy-related IT expenses by up to 25%. "Overall, it is hugely less energy use because it's leveraging an environment that was designed, set up, managed, monitored -- you name it -- for this purpose."

Whether CIOs ultimately decide to refurbish and rebuild, as Peltz said Marcus & Millichap plans to, or outsource their data center operations, like Chakrabarti did at Portola, Kumar stresses that there is little time to waste. Organizations that don't plan effectively for future data center energy use could find themselves spending as much on power and cooling as on hardware within the next five years, Kumar said.

The bottom line for CIOs and IT departments is that going green can mean saving lots of green, as Chakrabarti discovered. Helping the environment was not one of his motives when he was contemplating future data center options, Chakrabarti said, but "the cost savings are directly related to a much greener solution."

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