Greening Your IT Shop

Pressure to reduce data center energy consumption is mounting. Here's how to start.

Government data centers process mission-critical data used to inform U.S. economic, scientific and technological organizations. But the massive, superchilled rooms are energy guzzlers and, therefore, big greenhouse gas contributors. In 2005, U.S. data centers used about 45 billion kilowatt-hours, accounting for about 1.2 percent of the nation's electricity consumption, according to the Energy Department.

Information technology executives-and Congress-are waking up to those facts and researching ways to reduce energy bills. The pressure to "go green" to relieve some of the burden on the national electrical grid is mounting, and IT managers need to prepare now for requests to find ways to reduce energy consumption. Besides, better energy management can provide ancillary benefits. One is fewer power outages. Data centers average at least one serious outage per year because the grid is overloaded, and the number and size of the centers is increasing, according to Energy.

The Bush administration is taking action. Energy signed a deal in September with The Green Grid, a business consortium based in Beaverton, Ore., whose aim is to reduce power consumption worldwide. Its members include Dell, IBM, Microsoft and other IT giants. The Energy Department-Green Grid partnership will help data center operators implement energy management programs and adopt clean energy and efficient technologies. The partnership is developing a common set of metrics and tools as well as a Web site, Energy officials say.

Also, the Environmental Protection Agency's "Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency," issued this summer, concluded that by following best practices, federal data centers could cut up to 80 percent of their electrical demand, leading to a savings of $510 million a year. Such savings gets the attention of Capitol Hill. As of July, more than 100 bills have been introduced that reference green IT, says Rob Aldrich, a senior manager in Cisco's data center solutions marketing group and member of its energy efficiency team. There are no national standards for green data centers, so organizations must chart their own course. How can agencies evolve into enterprises that would make even former vice president and now environmental expert Al Gore proud? Government Executive turned to experts for advice.

Step 1: Appoint a Green Group

Because most IT organizations have limited resources to deal with energy and environmental issues, and lack the operational know-how to manage the range of green priorities (recyclables, e-waste creation or carbon emissions), a triage approach is essential, say analysts at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. According to a Gartner paper, "Conceptualizing 'Green' IT and Data Center Power and Cooling Issues" released in September, organizations should first assign an individual or group to take ownership of green projects and set the rules of engagement. The group should evaluate technologies that use less energy and work with procurement officers to establish policies for buying more efficient systems. Gartner suggests starting easy: Focus on one segment first, such as desktops or servers, then use that experience to address a broader product base.

Step 2: Consolidate and Virtualize

Another early step, which many federal agencies already have begun to follow, is consolidating data centers, which can increase storage capacity up to 70 percent, Aldrich says. IT managers should begin with the virtualization of existing data center components, says Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems Federal Inc. Virtualization merges workloads onto fewer servers and storage devices.

Reducing the number of servers, or creating headroom, to accommodate more workload decreases the energy needed to operate the servers. It also reduces the energy needed to cool the servers and peripheral systems, according to Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. The cost of virtualization is minimal because it does not require heavy lifting and moving, Aldrich says.

"You can increase virtualization and decommission old servers, or you can look to expand new services to offer back to data center operations," Aldrich says. "Either allows you to slow your power growth."

The greening of data centers also involves doing away with traditional raised floors and moving toward a more condensed cooling system. "It's about getting rid of machines that were designed to be desktops and replacing them with new ones that generate a small amount of heat relative to their performance," Vass says.

Step 3: Benchmark and Assess

Once you have consolidated data centers and virtualized, it's benchmarking time. Calculate how much electricity a data center uses and document the link between direct IT power utilization and cost savings. Benchmarks can be calculated quarterly, biannually or annually-whichever is best suited, Aldrich says. During that process, make sure IT staffers, facilities workers and others involved with the data center are "speaking the same language," he says. "Ask yourself if there is a shared taxonomy for identification of assets." Then determine what needs could be met by purchasing new equipment. Assess some of the available technologies, Aldrich says. For many aging federal data centers, new cooling systems should be at the top of IT managers' wish lists.

Paying the Bill

EPA reported that electrical consumption for U.S. data centers and servers doubled between 2000 and 2006. It could double again in the next five years, with costs reaching $7.4 billion, EPA says. No agency tracks how many data centers government operates, but EPA estimates they account for about 10 percent of the electricity consumed by all centers and servers nationwide.

Since IT executives don't pay the bills, "they have no idea how much they're costing; it's like an all-you-can-eat buffet," Vass says. If the power bill becomes part of a technology manager's portfolio, "it becomes a priority," he says. "Carbon footprints and ecology are nice to talk about, but more practically, agency data centers are out of space, out of power and they can't afford the power they do get."

Andrew Noyes is a senior writer for National Journal's Technology Daily.

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