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Green IT strategies could lead to hefty ROI

Various green IT technologies and strategies, such as virtualization and storage capacity consolidation, are allowing CIOs to cut costs and improve the ROI in their data centers.

Savvy and forward-thinking CIOs have recognized that ecological concerns aren't just for tree-huggers. Large enterprises, and to a lesser extent midrange companies, are starting to deploy products, and better yet, long-range green IT strategies, to reduce the carbon footprints of data centers. A number of factors are propelling this trend -- one of the biggest is the energy crisis.

More on green IT
Green Grid offers roadmap for tackling energy issue 

CIOs save green by going green in the data center
On Aug. 2, the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Program released to Congress a report assessing opportunities for energy efficiency improvements for government and commercial computer servers and data centers in the United States.

According to the report, data centers accounted for roughly 1.5% of the country's electricity consumption in 2006. The energy consumption of servers and data centers has doubled in the past five years and is expected to almost double again in the next five years, to more than 100 billion kWh, costing about $7.4 billion annually.

Existing green IT technologies and strategies could reduce typical server energy use by an estimated 25%, with even greater energy savings possible with advanced technologies.

"We need to keep the data center running as efficiently as possible because soon enough, power may get expensive enough to affect operations," said Marty Strasser, manager of IT infrastructure and support at Baxa Corp., a $100 million medical equipment manufacturer in Englewood, Colo.

All this has sent CIOs into a search for that killer technology with which they can lower their company's carbon footprint and at the same time realize a hefty ROI.

Essential green IT technologies that save money

In that regard, virtualization is a no-brainer, according to Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Virtualization enables IT managers to divide a single server, or multiple servers, into separate environments, each of which can run a different operating system and serve different applications. Virtual machine (VM) "images" can be ported from one physical server to another. Central administrative software can then balance processing loads and allocate storage capacity on an as-needed basis, across multiple virtual machines and physical servers. One or more VMs can take up the slack during a planned or unplanned outage.

Ways to conserve
data resources
Beyond virtualization, companies have a number of options for conserving data resources, including:

  • Centralizing and consolidating storage capacity on a storage area network.
  • Outsourcing the data center to a service provider, which can distribute computing resources among customers on an as-needed, resource-efficient basis.
  • Deploying more energy-efficient servers and storage devices.
  • Deploying more efficient cooling and airflow systems, and uninterruptible power supplies.
  • Installing sensors and software to track and regulate cooling, airflow and power.
  • "Most machines use 5% to 10% of available computing power," Kumar said. By utilizing server capacity more efficiently through virtualization, companies can do the same job with 50% to 60% of their existing server population, Kumar said. This translates into major savings in hardware, electricity and cooling.

    Baxa has virtualized 50 out of 120 hardware servers, using EMC Corp.'s VMware and LeftHand Networks Inc.'s virtualized SAN/iQ storage system. While Strasser could provide no hard ROI numbers, "I've been able to avoid having to expand the size of the data center, or bring in more power or cooling. I've avoided new construction costs, power lines, generators and backup equipment."

    A gradual consolidation as servers become obsolete can reduce the physical footprint of servers and storage devices by 25% to 30% over a two-year period, Kumar said.

    Space considerations are becoming increasingly critical, particularly in large cities where data center facilities are at a premium. In some cities, like New York and London, finding space for new data centers is virtually impossible.

    Currently, only about 12% of Intel x86-based corporate servers are virtualized, according to Gartner. However, AFCOM's Data Center Institute predicted that by 2010, nearly 70% of all data centers will utilize some form of grid computing or other type of virtual processing.

    Cutting energy and cooling bills

    Another piece of good news: CIOs don't need to rip out existing servers or purchase expensive or complex products in order to make a dent in their data center energy and cooling bills. There's plenty of low-hanging fruit, according to Richard Hodges, a principal at consulting company GreenIT in Sonoma, Calif.

    "Look under the data center floor to make sure the airflow isn't clogged by trash and cables." And in perennially cool places, like California, "You can just use outside air instead of AC for most of the day," Hodges added. "The starting point isn't sexy stuff, it's basic blocking and tackling. The equivalent of turning the lights out when you're not in the room." How much savings that brings in, "depends on how wasteful you've been."

    Still, the most effective approach is a holistic one, Hodges said. "You need to start by finding out what you have, and how much power it consumes. You can't manage what you can't measure."

    Green IT products on the rise

    The good news is that products like the ones described above are appearing on the market in growing numbers.

    Modius Inc.'s OpenData software, for example, enables data center managers to monitor, track and centrally manage the efficiency, power consumption and performance of power systems, generators, uninterruptible power supplies and air conditioning units, according to Craig Compiano, CEO at the Oakland, Calif.-based company. They can identify and address problems, such as "an AC unit overcompensating for demand from a server farm which may have been set up inefficiently."

    A number of leading computer and storage vendors have formed The Green Grid, a consortium dedicated to coming up with technologies, products and strategies to boost energy efficiency in the data center.

    Elisabeth Horwitt is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass.

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