Data Centers And The Environment – What Are The Issues And Opportunities?

When developing a plan for creating, staffing, managing and supplying a Data Center …. there’s much to consider. Such as how your company and or its products will have an impact on the environment …. and what some of that impact may be for your customers.

The answer will vary by the type of user and data center. Service providers have in the past had little motivation to achieve higher levels of efficiency or to lessen environmental impact. In today’s supply constrained market, that still holds true. Though there are marketing benefits for modest improvements. For single-tenant sites, the benefits of higher efficiency, and the corporate benefits of minimizing the environmental impact (noise, etc.) on the surrounding community, can be substantial.

According to the most recent report to congress, servers and data centers consumed about 1% of the total electrical consumption in the US from 2000 to 2005. That number is expected to double by 2011. Server and Data Center consumption exceeded the consumption of color TV’s in the US in that period of time. As the economy and businesses rely more on data centers as a business operation tool …. critical review and new thought must be used to provide availability, network security and efficiency. The federal government data centers represent almost 10% of the 1% value.

EPA is currently evaluating requirements for EnergyStar data centers and servers. At this time there are several industry groups engaged in efficiency ion servers and data centers. That would be Climate Savers Computing Initiative, The GreenGrid, SPECpower to name a few. Also governments are addressing efficiency in operations and in the data center and servers; EPA and the EU. Utilities have been engaged in data center efficiency improvements and have incented these improvements specifically in areas where energy resources are thin. The leaders in this area are PG&E, Austin Energy, NYSERDA, NSTAR and others.

In Europe there are strong peer pressures to be energy efficient. At BT, they’ve developed a strategy and 21st Century Data Center design that uses 60% less energy than conventional data centers. This simultaneously gives them a commercial advantage as well as a marketing edge in the green space.

In Europe, and particularly the UK, there is a new push for greener technologies, particularly where they converge on a single, overcrowded, limited footprint site – the Datacenter.

The environmental pressures are expressed to businesses in the form of requirements for compliance to environmental regulations and legislations, such as the WEEE* directive or RoHS**. Added to these compliance issues are the business costs of managing the additional power and environmental requirements resulting from engineering more and more processing poer into a smaller and smaller physical footprint (think BladeServers and 1U appliances).

Another concept, not yet incorporated into legislation but already loosely defined in marketing-speak and bandied about as a measure of an organization’s eco-profile is the “carbon footprint”. Which will take factors like power consumption, heating and heat dissipation, lighting, and building materials into account. But also cost of support and maintenance in terms of employee travel to and from site, DR overheads, resilience and redundancy, etc.

This is also an area of significant sensitivity to corporations. Since the most sensitive data and the majority of revenue streams depend upon the operational availability of data centers and the security of the networks supporting them. As the standards setting moves forward several points are clear: 1) real reduction in energy consumption across the board is needed 2) the focus is on the components of the data center, 3) a holistic top down review of efficiency in the data center and servers is required, 4) this is not once and done, but a process of data center and server evolution.

Vendors, Distributors, resellers and end customers are now moving to an understanding of these issues, and we are now seeing Datacenters being designed with those criteria in mind. Now we are seeing the deployment of such hitherto esoteric ideas as:

– More space-efficient, reduced-footprint server and comms rack cabinets (nifty sliding/folding doors, better equipment access with narrower aisles)

– Water-cooled rack cabinets (3,500-fold efficiency increase on traditional aircon)

– Remote, converged and consolidated centralised management of *all* Datacenter elements (carbon footprint savings in terms of reduction of callouts, employee travel, subsistence, fuel, onsite heating/lighting etc)

– Next Generation, high-efficiency (0.96+) Power Management (extended runtime UPS/battery back-up/DC-AC rectification and power distribution) – less power consumption and higher output, and again, carbon footprint savings in terms of reduction of callouts, employee travel, subsistence, fuel, onsite heating/lighting etc)

…this is just a taste… there are more “joined-up” technologies emerging every month.

In addition for the need to become “green” (using less power and cooling as new processors consume more) …. data center professionals are working on server virtualization. Which many feel is more of a concept than a reality. Data centers with mainframes are finding it increasingly difficult to find support staff as many of these experts are or have retired. Data center outsourcing is therefore increasing (studies show 8 to 13%) as the need for security and robust infrastructure increases.

There are also some obvious “environmental issues” surrounding data centers that center on the fact that they introduce a very high density of computing equipment:

1. Cooling requirements tend to be really hefty because of very high densities of both computers (e.g. – CPUs and memory) as well as sizable arrays of disk drives.

Of course, some benefits of “economies of scale” might be had if you can ensure high usage levels of all of the equipment. Unfortunately, the need for High Availability often means that the amount of hardware is immediately doubled or even tripled, with little opportunity to ensure High Usage.

2. The act of delivering expensive and delicate servers and components to the data center means that it has a remarkable density of trash generation in the form of the packaging used to safely deliver these items.

(And note that if you have redundant servers, that means delivering packing materials for those redundant servers…)

3. Battery backup and alternative power can put even more “environmental undesirables” into the location, between the stacks of lead/acid batteries, and diesel generators.

I have heard rumors that fuel cells might be well suited to replace some of these “environmental nasties,” but various of the common sorts of fuel cells introduce significantly dangerous components of their own.

4. All of the above need cooling, hence mandating *enormously* powerful air conditioning units.

There’s quite the multiplicative requirement, here; you need servers, and duplicates, and cooling for them all, and power and cooling to cover ALL of this.