Creative Methods: From Cows to Roof Plants
Creative thinking about energy conservation is fast becoming part of a CIO's job. And there's no shortage of ideas, from cow manure's methane gas as a cheap energy source to natural cooling via retractable roofs. In fact, today CIOs can tap winter air for "free cooling" through air economizer systems. Liquid cooling is also getting a second look. And then there are solar panels to tap the sun for "free" energy.
For Web hosting company AISO.Net of Romoland, Calif., some 120 solar panels power water-cooled servers in its data center. AISO.Net plans to grow drought-resistant plants on its roof to reduce cooling and heating requirements by 50%. "We've always been green-minded and felt that this would be the right thing to do," says Phil Nail, CTO and co-owner along with his wife, Sherry.
Besides embracing virtual servers, VistaPrint also decided to build a new data center in Windsor, Canada, where hydroelectric power and square footage costs are 60% cheaper than in, say, Lexington, Mass., a location VistaPrint considered. "Green was a factor in choosing that location," Cebula says.
Tech giants are also building data centers near cheap power. Microsoft and Cisco are reportedly looking at Iceland to erect mega data centers, tapping into the country's geo-thermal and hydroelectric power. Google has built a data center on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon. Another technique is to move workloads to data centers in different time zones to take advantage of lower utility rates throughout the day.
For midmarket CIOs considering a remote location to build a new data center, Aaron Branham, vice president of technology and operations at VistaPrint, has some advice: "It's cheaper to do it yourself if you have large enough economies of scale and a solid growth plan. Startups tend to have less money than more mature companies [so] it might not be possible to pay for a data center at this time. At the same time, picking a very small ISP to co-lo with you could get you in trouble if you are growing rapidly. In general, if you know you are going to need more than 20 racks, it might make sense to do it yourself." A new data center costs around $2,500 per square foot, depending on the location, says Paul Perez, vice president of scalable data center infrastructure at HP.
The EPA Weighs In
Late last year, Congress asked the EPA to study energy consumption in data centers. This summer the EPA delivered its 133-page report, "Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency, Public Law 109-431," authored by researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
The report contains guidelines, not regulations or recommendations for legislation. Industry watchers believe the EPA has little interest in regulating data centers. The EPA's next step is to develop metrics that help CIOs benchmark their energy consumption and policies.
The report suggests that CIOs can reduce a typical server's energy usage by 25% or more through existing technologies and design strategies, such as server virtualization. The EPA recommends voluntary tax incentive programs to drive adoption of best practices and calls for the federal government to challenge CEOs to conduct energy-efficiency assessments, implement improvements and report energy performance in their data centers on a voluntary basis. "Every data center should have a meter on it," says Andrew Fanara, Energy Star product development team leader at the EPA. "We feel that all we need is a little dose of competition, not regulation."
The report has received mixed reactions: Some think it went too far, others not far enough.
Robert McFarlane, data center consultant and president of Interport, a division of Shen, Milsom & Wilke Inc., a technology consultancy, is an outspoken critic of Congress' legislative track record on technology issues and believes the report gives politicians an easy target. "Since we have no real energy policy in this country, this gives Congress and the president an opportunity to push policy that looks good, especially in an election year, and blame the helpless, namely the people running the data centers," he says.
Yet Rakesh Kumar, analyst at market research firm Gartner, says, "We were looking for a stronger carrot and much bigger stick. ... The tax incentives are marginal and there should be, in our opinion, some threat of legislation."
Peter Boergermann of Citizens & Northern Bank in Wellsboro, Pa., is wary of seeing yellow Energy Star stickers slapped on servers. He believes the tech industry, particularly software vendors, should take the lead in reducing power consumption. Many of his issues are inside the box: Just scrolling through a window causes one of his applications to use 100% of its server capacity, for instance. The critical application, which manages property appraisals, also can't be virtualized lest it get bogged down fighting for resources with other virtualized applications.
"Let's make applications more efficient," Boergermann says. "It needs to go back to the development stage so that applications are written that are green."
This was first published in November 2007