At a tasty, vegetarian (and gratis) press dinner last week, Christian Belady, General Manager for Data Center Research at Microsoft got all the attendees to pay attention when he uttered these words: "Our goal is to eliminate the data center." He was exaggerating for effect, and it worked. He went on to explain: "in any given data center, only 25% of the space and power is dedicated to IT. The rest is mechanical: uninterrupted power supplies, generators, and switches cooling capabilities. We want to get rid of that." We were eager to hear examples and specifics, and Belady was happy to comply.
Hit 'em where it hurts
According to Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist for Microsoft, 85% of IT professionals have no idea how much energy their applications use. Equipment efficiency is one part of the puzzle, but once they're optimized, data centers are only as efficient as the applications that run on their servers.
A big challenge in the efficiency picture for Microsoft was figuring out how to incentivize application developers to consider the energy suck of their products. You can't manage something that doesn't get measured, so Microsoft shifted their internal model. Whereas departments were once charged for data center usage on the basis of how much space their applications took, they are now being charged on the basis of how much power they use. Suddenly, energy usage is going down.
Incentives for data center managers who reduce the energy load of their centers have also been quite effective. Belady shared a story of one manager who asked for funding to clean his roof. The manager had a hunch that his roof was dirty enough that it was making a measurable difference in how much of the sun's heat was absorbed by the building. After a quick power wash, a bright white roof emerged and the building's energy use shot down. Lessons like these are emerging from all departments and the data center research team is using them to change practices company wide. In this case, each data center now has a roof-cleaning schedule, (and one thoughtful data center manager got a nice bonus for his innovative approach).
The company's next challenge is getting this message out to application developers outside the company.
No more AC
One of the keys to reducing the impact of data centers is to get them off air conditioning. Microsoft is tackling that in two ways: first, in test centers they've switched to external air cooling- cold air is piped in from outdoors, reducing the need for high powered AC units. This has resulted in an instant 25% savings on energy costs. The challenge is that many server specs require a server to operate within a narrow 5 degree temperature range. Belady is tackling that head on with a challenge to server manufacturers to produce more flexible equipment. Microsoft's scale of purchasing proved compelling. The servers now available to the company operate at an impressively wide range: anywhere from 50-95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Microsoft is also working to reduce the physical size of servers and server equipment which will go a long way toward shrinking the data center. Through pressure and encouragement of OEM server suppliers, Microsoft was able to order servers without their physical casings. Now servers just sit naked on the shelves. This hasn't reduced their life expectancy, but it has reduced the environmental impact of the server farm.
On the other end of a server's life span, Microsoft is tackling end of use with its Microsoft Authorized Refurbishment program, in which equipment is repaired and prepped for re-use and sent to NGOs and educational institutions. As a condition of accepting the donation, these organizations commit to recycle the equipment when they're done with it.
Microsoft's approach to energy management is utilizes systems thinking, and it's clearly rigorous and thoughtful. We'll be watching closely and can't wait to hear about their next innovation.
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.