The data centre is shaping up as an environmental rogue as electricity prices rise, servers become hotter and denser, and climate change gels in the public consciousness. Cutting the power used by data centres is one of the issues being dealt with by businesses in their efforts to make office buildings greener.
"Just about all the clients I talk to are thinking about this," says Malcolm Mackay, business unit executive for IBM site and facilities services.
But with only 36 per cent of information technology managers surveyed by IBM describing carbon emissions reduction as a high priority for their business, the main pressure to cut power consumption is from rising electricity prices.
Those prices are expected to rise by three or four times over the next five years, says Chris Mitchell, managing director of EDS Australia, which has committed to reducing its in-house carbon emissions by 25 per cent by 2010.
Although energy accounts for only about 10 per cent of average IT spending, that could grow to 50 per cent and eat into other projects, according to technology industry analysts Gartner.
But organisations have little choice in the matter - their growing needs compel them to increase the number and power of machines they run.
In 2001, the average rack had around seven servers and consumed 100W of power; in 2006, that doubled to 12 servers consuming four times as much. By 2010, it's expected to grow to 20 servers, according to IDC.
That is worrying because the average server expends as much carbon emissions as a 4WD, says Phil Hassey, country manager for Springboard Research in Australia and New Zealand.
Further energy is consumed in air-conditioning to keep servers from overheating. Yet a lot of this energy consumption goes to waste - IBM's Mackay estimates that only between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of an average server's capacity is utilised.
Over the past few years, however, organisations have started trying to fix that.
A popular approach is to use virtualisation, which reduces energy consumption by allowing companies to run applications on fewer physical servers, in turn reducing power and cooling requirements. Virtualisation can push up server utilisation to 80 per cent.
Cost savings can be significant, at approximately $500 to $600 per server per year for the hardware, with further savings from reduced air-conditioning.
This year, for example, ANZ saved $120,000 in electricity costs by decommissioning 192 servers. It plans to take out a total of 400 machines by the end of the year.
There are other ways to run a lean IT house. One way is to scale down the power of the desktop by using thin clients, which do the same amount of work as personal computers but are run on a central server.
Another is to host applications on an outsourcer's server through the software-as-a-service model.
"The overall energy used is lower because so many more people are biting into the same footprint," says Springboard's Hassey.
Blade technology is another option, allowing servers to share resources such as network connections, power and cooling fans on a single chassis, and calling for a much lower energy output per megabyte.
IBM's survey shows that 76 per cent of companies surveyed are consolidating their systems, 73 per cent virtualising and half using more energy-efficient hardware such as blade servers.
Other organisations are reinstating mainframes to gain a single source of high-performance mission critical computing rather than add more processors.
"What we are seeing is that the cost to make the switch becomes more palatable as the cost of energy rises," says IBM's Mackay.
Simple conservation practices are also being advocated to conserve energy.
Organisations can extend the life of their personal computers by six or 12 months to stretch the useful life of machines that have a high hazardous waste content; they can switch off power instead of leaving it on standby; and they can take steps to change employee behaviour.
"We have to think about it holistically so that it's not just about consolidating geography and server, but also about driving behavioural changes," says Mitchell.
Australian Financial Review
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