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EU-backed bid to cap idle energy use by datacentre servers moves closer

Move to improve the energy efficiency of datacentres by capping idle energy use by servers by 2020 comes one step closer, despite opposition from IBM, HPE and Dell-EMC

Dell-EMC, IBM and HPE have suffered a setback in their bid to convince EU lawmakers to scrap plans to cap the amount of energy that enterprise servers can use when idle.

EU member states were invited to vote on the contents of the EcoDesign Directive on Monday 17 September. The legislation aims to improve the energy efficiency of a wide variety of electrical products by introducing mandatory limits on how much power they use.

Under the proposals, products that exceed these energy limits will be phased out of use and sale within the EU, starting from March 2020.  

Among the products covered by the directive are enterprise servers and storage equipment. The EU plans to set guidelines on how much energy that products within this category consume while running in an idle state.

According to EU estimates, the implementation of these new rules could collectively result in annual energy savings of about 9TWh by 2030, with 2.4TWh of these savings attributable to curbing the amount of power used by idle servers.

In the run-up to the vote, the decision to focus on idle energy use has been called into question by Dell-EMC, IBM and HPE, who claim the measurement is an ineffective way to determine how energy efficient a server really is.

However, Computer Weekly understands that the “majority” of participants in the Regulatory Committee voted in favour of the directive on 17 September, which means it has moved one step closer to coming into force.

With the Regulatory Committee vote out of the way, the directive’s contents will now undergo three months of scrutiny by members of the European Parliament and Council.

The regulation’s text cannot be amended at this stage, but the draft can still be opposed. If no opposition is forthcoming, it will be officially adopted by the European Commission and enforced.

According to Dell-EMC, HPE and IBM, the EU’s focus on idle energy use could result in some of the most efficient servers being removed from sale. All three suppliers separately outlined their disapproval at its use during a four-week consultation on the directive in July 2018.

As an alternative, the trio have all separately championed the use of an active efficiency metric, which they claim gives a much more accurate view of how well a server performs because it takes into account how much energy it consumes when idle and in an active state.

The suppliers’ position on the matter has also won the support of technology trade body TechUK, which told Computer Weekly of its disappointment at the outcome of the vote, while outlining its overall support for what the EU is seeking to achieve with the directive.

Read more about datacentre efficiency

In a statement, TechUK said that although there are signs that the EU has made some concessions towards addressing the concerns of the supplier community regarding the use of the idle energy metric, it may not be enough to appease its more vehement detractors. 

“Manufacturers are concerned that a large proportion of servers currently in use and due to enter the market over the next two years will fail when the regulation comes into place in 2020,” said Emma Fryer, associate director of climate change programmes at TechUK.

“The proportion of next-generation servers passing those thresholds has yet to be seen. While a server’s lifetime is only about two years, server design and development is much longer and more complex, and a year and a half is not very long. Time will tell.”

While there has been some high-profile opposition to the directive, it has also had its fair share of supporters, including Rabih Bashroush, a reader in distributed systems and software engineering at the University of East London’s School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering.

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, Bashroush recently finished work on a 36-month, EU-backed research project geared towards helping public sector datacentre operators pinpoint areas where cost and energy efficiencies can be made.

In a blog post authored in response to the 17 September vote, Bashroush said that although some server manufacturers will be unhappy at the outcome, there are many others who have products on the market what are well within the idle limits.

For this reason, the innovation potential of the directive should not be underestimated, said Bashroush. “From a technology perspective, if we look at other domains, such as mobile, where current mobile devices can record and play HD movies and do all sorts of high-end calculations, powered by 2 Ah batteries, it tells us that when there is demand to increase efficiency (in this case business demand), designers can come up with solutions,” he wrote. “And I see the EcoDesign legislation helping push innovation in this area.

“Business competition aside, this regulation will undoubtedly have a substantial impact, helping to reduce the environmental impact of datacentres in Europe and potentially further afield.”

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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The energy used by servers in a data centers is one of the topics we will be discussing at the OCP Regional Summit in Amsterdam (Oct 1-2). I do not think the focus a number of vendors put on the idle server metric is the right approach. Wether we like it or not it is very clear that Europe needs to do something to lower the energy usage of its fast-growing data centre industry. The products and technologies to do that are already available as open source hardware designs. So actually I think that the EU is giving us a great opportunity here to start using innovative data centre hardware that will make it possible for a typical data centre to reduce the energy consumption of idle servers by at least 50%.

We might also want to take a real good look at what kind of server hardware we invest in. Is it really necessary to buy the latest and greatest servers for each and every application or cloud service? Or is a somewhat older server still very well capable of doing the job? Within the OCP community we see a lot of data centres buying so called '2nd user' hardware. These servers are 2 or 3 years old but technically very well capable of running certain workloads for many years to come. There is a great opportunity here. Buying 2nd user OCP hardware obviously gives you a very interesting advantage when it comes to CAPEX. And when we install a lot of virtual machines on these systems we are able to drive up the utilization of these servers to a level that makes it possible to improve their energy efficiency dramatically.
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