How the ‘Energy Productivity’ of Data Centers Is Surpassing the Energy Efficiency Challenge

This article is the second in a series on the topic of data center energy efficiency, brought to the forefront of industry discussion by a recent New York Times article on this subject matter.

Data center energy efficiency continues to be a much-discussed topic in the industry, in mainstream media conversations and within the federal government.  The New Year brings an acceleration of momentum for this conversation, with increased recognition by all parties of the dramatic productivity gains per unit of energy hat recent advancements have enabled, essentially enabling new data centers to “leap-frog” the legacy data center builds of years past.

There have been monumental energy efficiency gains in the data center industry in a relatively short period of time. Data centers have evolved greatly over the past decade by significantly advancing productivity in every sector. They have implemented energy efficient technologies and operational practices while wholeheartedly embracing the opportunity to minimize their respective environmental impact. Even those managing data center site selection have begun to adopt practices where increased selectivity of source energy, inclusive of the opportunity to adopt renewable energy sources, is becoming more common.

Data center managers now have access to and are employing a wide variety of tools and technologies to monitor, measure and adjust energy usage to increase productivity and efficiency, including:

Energy Efficient Design

There are a myriad of options available to data centers when it comes to designing and building an energy efficient facility. Data centers of all types have started to employ a modular approach where containerized, scalable units of IT, inclusive of or separate from infrastructure, can be used to account for future build outs in the most efficient way possible. Instead of over-provisioning, data centers can be built to meet exact requirements. They are easily expandable to respond to growth and increased demand for IT services, whether in the near or long-term future.

Just by installing simple, energy-efficient technologies, data centers can reduce their consumption up to 30 percent or more. When it comes to temperature regulation, data centers are implementing hot-aisle and cold-aisle containment strategies, free air cooling, economization, blanking panels, air curtains and other low-cost, effective ways to reduce the energy usage of heating and cooling data center physical infrastructure. The implementation of a hot-aisle and cold-aisle containment strategy alone can return up to 25 percent in energy savings.

Data Center Infrastructure Management Software

Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) software is the present and future of data centers, providing data centers with a centralized hub to monitor, manage and allocate all assets in a facility. DCIM integrates IT equipment and functions into one application, giving managers a holistic view of operations, temperatures, power utilization and security. This data can then be used to identify opportunities for optimizing load, increasing cooling system efficiency and more effectively managing capacity.

DCIM software can also enable organizations to increase asset utilization, taking further advantage of their virtualization deployments. While consolidating servers and decommissioning old hardware is an obvious benefit to server virtualization, managers can take it a step further by allowing the software to automatically shift loads between servers and shut down zombie (underutilized) servers and IT assets. DCIM software integrates with virtualization management software, giving managers access to data that will help implement this automation.

As a result of DCIM monitoring, one of the world’s leading telecommunications companies turned off approximately 40 percent of the computer room air conditioners in their data centers, providing an instant reduction in energy consumption and an anticipated savings of more than 55 million kilowatts annually.

Industry Response

The data center industry has risen to the challenge of increasing productivity per unit of energy employed and reducing environmental impact by implementing more energy efficient equipment, including high-efficiency UPSs and servers. Data centers are also using close-coupled cooling solutions, where the cooling is brought closer if not directly to the heat load. Even legacy cooling systems of CRAC/CRAH units can now be managed in ways to stop demand fighting. When installed, these types of equipment help managers reduce consumption almost immediately.

For additional ways to increase efficiency, data center managers are taking advantage of professional data center assessment services such as those certified by the U.S. DOE DCeP program, or submitting for ENERGY STAR recognition through the EPA ENERGY STAR for Buildings Data Center Rating System. They’re also becoming actively engaged with global organizations such as The Green Grid.

ENERGY STAR now has guiding principles for energy efficiency, and ENERGY STAR ratings for data centers and product specifications. These initiatives are designed to measure, document and implement sustainable, energy efficient practices. In the past four years, 29 data centers have earned the ENERGY STAR rating with hundreds more in the pipeline.

The Green Grid is a non-profit organization comprised of end users, policy makers, technology providers, facility architects, and utility companies. Its main goal is to improve the resource efficiency of information technology and data centers throughout the world through a common set of globally developed metrics, technical resources, practices and educational tools. To date, The Green Grid is comprised of more than 200 member organizations and nearly 4,000 participants.

Over 350 data centers are actively using The Green Grid’s Data Center Maturity Model (DCMM), which is just seven months old. DCMM provides actionable goals and direction for improving power, cooling, compute, storage, network and facility efficiency across 5 levels of globally comparable maturity.

What’s Next for Data Center Efficiency?

The industry is already seeing the implementation of next-generation energy management technologies by companies such as Google, with its geothermal data center in Finland, and Apple, with its solar-powered facility in Maiden, North Carolina. Smaller data centers and IT spaces need not be left out, however, with the continued development of sustainable technologies more suited for their needs (and budget). Data centers of all sizes have the opportunity to asses and manage their energy; many have taken the extra steps of implementing energy-efficiency as a part of their day-to-day operations to increase productivity, reduce costs and improve their environmental sustainability.

While private and public cloud computing and virtualization practices continue to expand the opportunity of increased productivity and energy efficiency, there are other significant advancements on the horizon. Exascale computing achieves densities and productivity levels that reduce typical HPC applications from weeks and months to mere hours. “Energy-aware” computing is where software applications are designed with energy use as a criterion. Software-defined networking, and eventually the software-defined data center, will play a major role in how data centers are built and managed for decades to come.

In addition to these technological developments, the federal government and the data center industry are becoming increasingly collaborative, as major industry players such as the Green Grid are engaging with the White House, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress to determine practical solutions for how the federal government can lead the way in increasing IT-enabled energy productivity.

As the world grows increasingly digitalized, data centers will increasingly serve as the economic hub for businesses of all types, further propelling the development of sustainable technologies to increase “energy productivity” and reduce environmental impact for future generations.

John Tuccillo is vice president of Global Industry and Government Alliances at Schneider Electric.

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