Last month, Dell made the somewhat shocking announcement that it may never build another data center. The company was referring to the fact that it’s doubled its workload using no extra power and building no new data centers, simply by squeezing more capacity out of its existing servers. With an industry standard for data server utilization at about 12 to18 percent, there is ample room for improvement. What Dell realized was that by getting rid of its underutilized assets and swapping out the oldest and most outdated 25 percent of servers each year for the newest virtualization models, it would easily recoup its capital expenditures through reduced energy costs.
This might not sound revolutionary, but keeping legacy servers in place is a widespread habit in the IT world for much the same reason that people tend to keep their old refrigerator plugged into the garage or basement, when they have a new efficient one in the kitchen: they might be able to use it again someday. However, given how outdated both technologies are by the time they’re replaced, keeping them around does little but drain energy and cash.
At the Heartland GreenUp IT Conference in Des Moines last week Wells Fargo’s Executive VP of Enterprise Hosting Services, Jim Borendame echoed Dell’s strategy, saying that the bank hopes to defer or avoid building new data centers. To achieve this goal, Wells Fargo has an aggressive “service life extension program” in which hundreds of servers that are under-utilized or more than ten years old are prioritized for decommission. As part of this process, existing space is renovated to current design techniques, such as keeping hot and cold air separate, and new technology, such as updated network switches, and servers capable of virtualization.
Also at the GreenUp, HP’s CIO, Randy Mott, explained how similar measures brought down the the cost of IT from four percent of HP’s revenue to the less than two percent that it represents now. Over a billion dollars were saved in 2009 by consolidating 85 data centers in 29 countries to just six data centers in three locations. Moss explained that because the best servers today are 19x more efficient than those from as recent as 2005, simply replacing them can help relieve two of HP’s biggest IT problems: sprawling server infrastructure and increasing costs.
While the greenest data center may be the one that isn’t built, sometimes new facilities will be required. Looking beyond server hardware, building design greatly impacts how energy-hungry a data center is. HP’s next generation data center in Wynyard, UK, which opened in February 2010, makes use of the wind coming off the North Sea not only to avoid the cooling costs for which data centers are notorious, but also to provide ten percent of the facility’s power from turbines. While a typical data center has a power usage efficiency (PUE) of 2.0 (meaning that it takes as much energy to cool as it does to run the equipment), the Wynyard facility has reached a PUE of 1.2.
Last August, ACT’s data center in Iowa City, IA, became the first data center to receive a LEED Platinum certification from the USGBC. Also represented at the GreenUp, ACT’s assistant VP Tom Struve and Kevin Monson of Neumann Monson Architects explained how incorporating sustainable design elements actually improved the data center’s ability to perform its primary function and aid in the building’s resiliency to Iowa’s often extreme weather conditions. The LEED design guidelines prompted ACT to develop a custom monitoring system that trends key electrical and cooling parameters, compares usage to installed capacities and allows ACT to proactively predict and plan for modular capacity expansion.
Sheila Samuelson is a Sustainable Business Strategist at Bright Green Strategy, and a graduate of Presidio Graduate School’s MBA in sustainable management.