Lean data centres try to turn down the heat

Data centres consume a lot of power, much of it for cooling - but that is all about to change.

Data centres are notoriously energy hungry, with a large pod drawing as much power as a small town. National Australia Bank's data centres, for example, draw around 22 per cent of the total of all the energy consumed by the bank, including its branches.

Besides being power hungry, data centres are also inefficient, with much of the energy they consume wasted as heat. At least half the power used to run them is spent cooling them down.

In short, data centres are an environmental fiasco, but until now that has meant little to companies.

Energy bills have traditionally accounted for less than 10 per cent of overall IT budgets, according to technology industry analyst Gartner, and the environment has rated low on a list of competing priorities. But that is set to change.

From July 31, companies with carbon emissions above a certain threshold will be compelled by the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007 to ensure they're taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint.

They must report their emissions from October 31 or face fines of around $220,000 and an additional $11,000 per day, with executive directors risking criminal charges.

All that exacerbates the strain companies already face addressing other compliance obligations and technology demands.

"It will be difficult time for them to work through," notes Lawrence Sparkes, capability leader, EDS Australia, which is working on its own green conversion and extending these solutions to customers.

But while the act is enough to prompt energy-saving measures, there are other, financial imperatives driving companies.

For a start, Gartner forecasts that energy will soon account for more than half of the IT budget.

The number of servers in data centres is mounting, with the US Environmental Protection Agency estimating growth of around 18 per cent a year.

Blade servers which stack more closely and need more cooling are the main culprits in skyrocketing electricity use, a report by Frost & Sullivan, Green IT: Meeting the Environmental Challenge says.

It cites estimates from Sun Microsystems that by 2010, high-density servers will consume 25kW of power and produce 500 watts of heat. In 2005, a rack of servers used 2kW of power and produced 40 watts of heat.

For each kilowatt of energy used per hour in Australia, 1kg of CO2 is emitted, according to IBM analysis.

But while companies hunger for more computing power, increasingly there just isn't the space to expand the data centre or the energy to feed growing needs.

Many companies looking to increase their energy use, notably those in Brisbane, have found that they simply can't draw more power from the grid.

"We're seeing people having to get special dispensation to draw down more power from the grid," says Mark Roberts, business development manager for IT at technology peripherals vendor Rittal.

The best way to fix these problems is to make the data centre more energy efficient.

"The data centre is the quick fix so CIOs are looking at this first for savings," says Simon Hayes, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

A key strategy is to use virtualisation, which pools a set of resources and makes it available according to need.

"Servers are utilised at a maximum of 50 per cent capacity," notes EDS' Sparkes. "By virtualising you can bring it up to 80 per cent."

Other benefits accrue. "With virtualisation you can go from 50 servers to three and get not only the energy reductions but also the business benefits," says Graham Schultz, Australia partner manager at networking solutions company Brocade.

Jetstar is one company that has taken this route. Its CIO, Stephen Tame, says the airline has saved 87,500 tonnes of CO2 a year by decommissioning 59 servers, making gross annual saving of between $805,000 and $1.05 million.

However, existing data centre architecture is often unable to support mass-scale virtualisation. Now, however, vendors are delivering hardware to evolve the infrastructure.

For example, Brocade offers product such as its DCX Backbone that can deliver a tenfold improvement in efficiency over certain infrastructures, while servers with energy star ratings are expected to come on market in about 2010.

Redesigning the data centre to improve energy use is another strategy being pursued, with numerous configurations possible.

For example, companies can re-use cooled water, they can reroute under-floor cables to free up space for cooling and they can apply power factor correction to minimise energy loss when power is drawn from the grid.

Servers can also be set in hot or cool aisles and grouped in smaller numbers to reduce heat.

After the initial outlay, costs reduce, says Sundeep Khisty, EDS's Environmental Sustainability Services Manager.

The lesson is that paring back the data centre can make a huge difference to energy consumption. "If you are lean, you can be green," he says.

Fairfax Business Media