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How to make the case for a greener data centre

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Data centres are widely known for consuming a lot of energy. According to some estimates, almost 2% of the nation's electricity is used to power computers and telecoms equipment, most of it in specialised data centres. One data centre facility can use up to 50 times as much power as the equivalent in office space. However, operators have started driving up their efficiencies and driving down their costs and showing that they're making their buildings more efficient and their data centres greener.

If we're honest, there are two main reasons why our industry in recent years has decided to green up: First, it saves us money and, second, we don't want to be stung with a reported £50,000 fine for failing to register and comply with the forthcoming CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment).

But, how is the industry as a whole getting on with reducing energy consumption and making data centres greener? Are we really making a difference to our environment and are there things we should be doing that most of us haven't even started on yet?

Most data centre operators are clearly making huge strides in the quest to become eco-friendly, but it is the legacy data centres that need to put in the most effort. Many of these facilities were built during a time when energy was cheaper and being green was not high on the agenda, therefore the buildings simply weren't constructed with energy-saving measures in mind.

Many are also now faced with an ethical dilemma for determining

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what is the most eco-friendly solution: Shut their facility and build a newer, more efficient centre in a remote location, built possibly on green belt land or remain consuming high-in-demand energy in a built-up city? The most logical conclusion is to remain and try to make their facilities as efficient as possible.

Taking initiative to green up data centres
The data centre industry has undoubtedly become more energy conscious in recent years. We are all working very hard to increase efficiency, reduce costs, improve our carbon footprint and cool down the environment. The largest investment in this cause has to be in improving the efficiency of the chillers, other cooling systems and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), which has made a huge difference. UPS's now waste less power in converting electricity for servers, which have themselves become more efficient in making greener data centres.

We are generally aware of the issues, but adoption isn't as fast as it could be. Plus a busy CIO or IT manager needs a reason why this is high on his list, otherwise he just won't do it.

Roger Keenan, managing director, City Lifeline,

Furthermore, diesel generators used for standby power generation have become much smaller for a given power output and much less polluting. For example, the TA-Luft regulations, an air pollution control policy in Germany, are exceedingly tough in terms of limiting the soot particles and nitrous oxides that are put into the atmosphere and these particles are slowly spreading across Europe because no engine designer wants to design one engine for Germany and another for the rest of Europe. Regulations, such as the TA-Luft, will spread into all new data centres and refurbishments of legacy data centres.

Many operators have now started to fit movement-detection light switches throughout the building, so that lights are only on when there is someone in the area and switch off automatically when the person leaves. This saves on power, together with converting heat given off by the computing and telecoms systems to keep staff warm in the rest of the building. Even during the coldest winter day, most of those enterprises now generate enough heat to keep everybody warm.

A huge energy cost for data centres is cooling and air conditioning. It is a vital component of the data centre environment to help protect equipment and more importantly customers' data. But it's the most expensive to maintain. Recently there have been major energy savings and efficiency gains from replacing old air conditioning equipment with modern equipment. In particular, chiller and air-con motors can now be driven by variable-speed inverter drives (in place of the old bang-on, bang-off controls), which means that the motor turns on only the absolute amount it needs to and uses only the minimum amount of energy it needs.

Still room for improvement in the quest for greener data centres
Despite these efforts, there are still areas that operators should be addressing but are failing to. As always, the biggest issue in any initiative is the actual take-up. For instance, most data centre operators understand the need for blanking plates to stop chilled air going around the servers and mixing with the hot air instead of going through them. However, many of them pay lip service to it but don't do it. Or, in fact, they do it but don't discipline it, so that it works for a while but technicians then change pieces of equipment and don't put the blanking plates back, so the cold air just flows around the servers and doesn't perform the way it's supposed to.

Similarly, we talk about modern chillers being much more efficient than old ones, but most of those installed are old ones, and it costs a lot of money to replace them so operators choose not to. At this point, the "who pays the electricity bill?" question can often crop up. For instance, although a 2010 server may be several times more efficient than a 2007 server, most 2007 servers are still running because it costs a lot of money to manage a full equipment refresh, and managers want to conserve cash in these difficult financial times.

Having an energy-saving bright idea is one thing, getting to the point where more than 50% of the industry is actually doing it is quite another. So, we are generally aware of the issues, but adoption isn't as fast as it could be. Plus a busy CIO or IT manager needs a reason why this is high on his list,; otherwise he just won't do it.

Don't leave the older generation behind
Legacy data centres suffer from all of the issues above. New data centres are designed for energy efficiencies at the outset, but an existing data centre can be just as efficient as a new data centre using conventional technologies. However, it requires a substantial ongoing investment programme to remove old technology and replace it with new technology. That's true of the data centre's infrastructure and of the servers and other equipment in it.

Legacy data centres do have to keep on investing; they are a capital-intensive industry. A legacy data centre that fails to invest in efficient technologies and greener data centre methodologies will be okay for a while, but will slowly start to see its costs rise relative to its competitors and will not be able to hold its prices alongside them and will slowly become uncompetitive.

Finally, enterprises designing a greener data centre today will design with energy efficiency in mind, because there is no economic sense in wasting energy and it would be seen as socially irresponsible. Anyone with an existing data centre is, or should be, replacing old equipment with new and gradually improve their efficiency and greenness.

So all that's left are existing corporate data centres where no one cares, and with poor efficiencies that nobody is doing anything about – maybe these will become known as 'brown data centres?" Nobody is going to own up to that, so you can presumably assume that all data centres will now claim to be green, even those that aren't.

Roger Keenan is the managing director at colocation data centre provider City Lifeline and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK.

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This was first published in November 2010

 

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