With their voracious appetites for energy, data centers present enormous challenges for companies looking to trim their carbon footprint and cut their utility costs. Part of the problem is due to something we’ll call “energy anxiety,” in which data centers are outfitted with an overabundance of systems to guard against any possibility of a power disruption. However, new tools are becoming available for “smarter” data centers to cut energy consumption without sacrificing energy security, and that is beginning to open up some unique opportunities for the introduction of a more nimble, diversified approach to energy sources.
In particular, smarter data centers have a greater potential to integrate renewable energy into their operations without sacrificing stability and reliability of supply. That, in turn, can lead to new platforms for interacting with local energy suppliers, engaging with local environmental communities and contributing to local economic growth.
Plenty of wiggle room for smarter data centers
On the plus side, because the industry default has been to err heavily on the side of caution, a relatively modest investment in smarter energy technology can yield surprisingly significant returns.
That element of surprise is exactly the basis of the problem, as described by a Microsoft white paper on data center efficiency recently profiled here at TriplePundit. Microsoft’s point is that IT vendors and suppliers are developing more energy-efficient equipment, but most data centers don’t have a handle on how much energy they could save by installing more efficient equipment because they don’t have an accurate picture of their current energy consumption.
In addition, Microsoft found that average server utilization has probably not improved much over the past ten years, standing at about 20 percent or less, with some organizations reporting usage at ten percent or less.
The solution is to adopt a holistic approach, or energy efficiency “roadmap,” that enables energy managers to visualize every level of usage from disk drives on up to the building itself. In order to accomplish that, a data center must engage in a constant cycle of measurement, goal setting and adjustment for all IT resources.
Data center efficiency is a means, not an end
One interesting point raised by Microsoft is a reminder that a narrow-minded focus on energy efficiency is not necessarily the best strategy. Energy efficiency is a means, not an end, and efficiency is not the same as conservation.
To cite one obvious example as applied to human resources, you can easily conserve energy, whether your HVAC system is inefficient or not, simply by raising the interior temperature a few extra degrees in the summer and lowering it a few degrees in the winter, but that can only get you so far before your workforce starts to feel uncomfortable and productivity suffers.
A similar approach applies to buildings and their systems, as haphazard investments in new equipment, however efficient it may be, can easily lead to an imbalance that impedes overall performance, particularly if cooling systems fail to keep pace.
Establishing models for data center efficiency
In order to help the IT industry make the transition to more efficient operations, the Obama Administration has embarked on a number of initiatives under the Department of Energy, including an online data center toolkit under the Advanced Manufacturing Office.
Emerson, another company we’ve been profiling at TriplePundit, was out ahead of the curve in 2009 with the opening of a maximum efficiency data center designed to showcase best practices and up-to-date technologies.
However, though the new data center earned LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, Emerson noticed a critical gap similar to the one described by Microsoft: high efficiency IT equipment is all well and good, but getting it to operate at maximum efficiency requires close coordination with the power and cooling infrastructure of the building. That also means that the power and cooling infrastructure need to be flexible enough to keep pace with alterations in the server equipment and changes in traffic loads.
Filling the data center efficiency gap
According to Emerson, the problem is that traditionally the IT systems and building infrastructure have been managed separately, and coordinating the two has grown even more complicated over the past few years with the advent of cloud computing, data center co-location and near-instantaneous virtualization (virtualization refers to simulated servers).
In response, Emerson has developed a holistic data center management platform called Trellis™, which provides a single, real-time interface for management data from all systems in the building. As described by Emerson:
“With all management data accessible on a single device, and smart filters that enable different views for different data center personnel, data center managers can proactively identify a range of potential power and cooling issues before they impact service. They can make better server deployment decisions by having access to data on actual consumption and capacity. They will know exactly where efficiency losses are occurring within devices and sub-systems.”
When it rolled out Trellis last year, Emerson reported that the new software is capable of achieving an improvement in operational efficiency of up to 70 percent, and a 25 percent improvement in energy efficiency.
Smarter data centers and energy security
Equipped with holistic management tools like Trellis in hand, data centers are in a better position to avail themselves of intermittent energy sources like solar and wind, combined with fuel cells, advanced batteries and other energy storage options.
Apple’s latest environmental progress report demonstrates that this approach can yield a degree of energy security that matches or even exceeds that provided by conventional energy sources. Apple has already achieved 100 percent renewable energy at its data centers, either by generating it on-site or by purchasing it directly from local suppliers.
The community engagement advantage
The new Apple data center in Maiden, North Carolina also demonstrates how a focus on renewable energy can enable companies to engage interactively with resources in their host communities, rather than simply serving as passive customers for energy generators.
Part of the Maiden facility’s renewable energy mix consists of landfill gas, and Apple has already begun working with Duke University on expanding biogas harvesting in North Carolina (Google is also involved with the Duke biogas project, as a carbon offset). Given the state’s massive hog farming sector, that would provide Apple with a reliable supply of renewable biogas. The bottom line would benefit the hog industry, too, since biogas recovery systems convert raw waste into marketable products, including an environmentally stable soil amendment as well as biogas.
Google demonstrates another way in which data centers can engage with local systems. The company has been taking partially treated wastewater from a municipal treatment plant in Georgia and using it to cool its nearby data center. The use of recycled water helps to ease the stress on local water resources, and it receives an enhanced level of treatment at the data center, helping to improve water quality in the Chattahoochee River.
In short, a holistic approach to energy management can help transform data centers from energy-sucking liabilities to an economic and environmental benefit for local communities.