Backing Into Conservation

While being eco-friendly isn’t the driving force behind the data center consolidation at VA, it’s turning out to be a big fringe benefit.

While being eco-friendly isn't the driving force behind the data center consolidation at VA, it's turning out to be a big fringe benefit.

It's 8:30 on a Thursday morning in early summer and Charlie DeSanno is in good spirits. The Veterans Affairs Department data center guru is en route to Philadelphia to scout a potential commercial lease space that could heighten his agency's productivity. As he zips down the New Jersey Turnpike, he can't help but daydream about the cost savings, increased security and improved reliability that could come to pass if his visit is a success.

Until recently, VA took a decentralized approach to information technology, allowing officials at its 1,400 hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes to decide how to meet their IT needs. But during the past few years, the department has been consolidating its decades-old computer network into regional hubs, and DeSanno, VA's executive director of enterprise infrastructure engineering, is the project's biggest cheerleader-and its ringleader.

One of the reasons the department began merging its operations was to ensure it was moving in the direction of a more energy-saving IT enterprise. In addition, VA has about 150 data centers and can't afford to reengineer them all to be green. Instead, administrators decided that combining the centers into regional facilities would be a sensible alternative.

VA has leased data centers in the West-one in Sacramento, Calif., and another in Denver-and has two other facilities on the East Coast, in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y. The facility DeSanno is visiting on the morning of our interview has oodles of green components, he says. Part of the vetting process for new centers is making sure the vendor being auditioned has a strategy to go green, or at least a game plan to address the steadily increasing price and environmental impact of IT.

When scoring potential data centers for VA to use, DeSanno scrutinizes facilities' percentage of emissions; generator capacity; sources of power; number of power feeds available; and pipeline cooling systems. The department brought the four existing centers online before going green was in vogue, he says, but its standards are higher now as DeSanno scopes out additional regional hubs and looks to upgrade or phase out older, less efficient ones.

DeSanno admits that the two centers in the West have suffered performance issues that he declined to explain but is working to address. The East Coast centers are running smoothly. The Brooklyn facility, which VA owns, is where he can be found when he's not out of town for on-site visits.

During his search for potential new data centers, DeSanno weighs a number of factors, including how reliable the service is, if it has a plan for continuity of operations and disaster recovery, what security precautions have been put into place, how much VA could save, and the center's ability to expand if needed. "We don't want to go in and have space today, but no space tomorrow," he explains.

DeSanno admits that for VA, being environmentally friendly isn't at the top of the list for data centers, but it's becoming more important. "As a human living on this planet, I want to ensure that we're conserving, reducing greenhouse gases, and moving in the direction of everyone working together to reduce pollution and save energy," he adds.

More eco-friendly operations have been a byproduct of the regionalization program. The department has reduced its power consumption by about 25 percent by creating the regional data centers. Its facilities used to have about 60 cabinets (or racks), which held servers and other equipment, for each data center. Now, VA's regional data centers have 35 to 40 cabinets, saving electricity and money. The department also generates savings by running more configurations on consolidated, up-graded systems. DeSanno declined to say exactly how much the regional data centers were saving VA.

At leased sites, much of the savings comes from having fewer maintenance contracts and eliminating duplicate services. Less downtime is another perk of high-efficiency hubs, and that leads directly to customer satisfaction, according to DeSanno. "We've improved tremendously and will keep up that momentum," he says.

As the number of systems VA needs increases, the size of the data centers will expand, he says. Right now an average data center for the department spans about 4,000 square feet, but in the future VA might need spaces of 10,000 square feet or more. Meanwhile, computer manufacturers are building more compact machines, which produce more heat and use more power because they require more cooling. That can offset energy-reducing efforts. "That's a big issue on the green front, and it's an issue that continues to get bigger," he says.

A few days after our interview, DeSanno attended a high-tech summit organized by consulting firm Gartner Inc. Many technologists at the conference shared the view that until top-level executives hold their information technology departments responsible for the costs of running the IT infrastructure, reducing energy consumption will not be a concern for IT managers. "People in IT believe that going green is not their issue and facilities management believes it's not their issue either," he says.

But DeSanno says he views the responsibility differently. "While it's not the utmost priority," he says, "it plays into my day-to-day strategy." ž

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