The Coming Data Center Crisis

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 2008-04-30 Print this article Print

The demand for processing power is starting to outstrip our ability to cost-effectively power it.

When it comes to finding ways to power and cool our data centers, there’s mounting evidence that we’re approaching a crisis. In a new study from the Uptime Institute, 42 percent of the 311 IT managers surveyed said they would run out of power capacity in their data centers within the next 12 to 24 months.

This may strike some people as odd, given the increasing deployment of virtualization in data centers today. This technology enables us to better utilize existing servers and eliminates the need to add server capacity—capacity that must be first powered and then cooled. But when you think about where we are in the virtualization adoption curve, it becomes clear that the vast majority of production systems today are not running any virtualization software.

What we have now is a massive wave of servers consolidated into a smaller number of data centers. These centers increasingly make use of densely packed blade servers, which throw off more heat. That leaves the managers running these data centers with some difficult choices.

Most will probably survive by spending a boatload of money to increase the amount of water cooling used to cool down their servers. While that may reduce the amount of energy spent to cool the data center, it doesn’t do a lot to reduce the cost of powering the data center.

To solve that problem, many senior managers are thinking seriously about moving their data centers to completely new locations, including areas where there is greater access to inexpensive hydro-electric power. The basic idea is that the closer you are to a river, the less costly the power is going to be. Both Google and Microsoft, for example, are moving data centers to relatively remote locations near rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

However, access to cheap power may not be the only factor to consider when evaluating locations for your next data center. Many companies are considering countries such as Iceland and Ireland, where the cold climate makes it easier to air-cool a data center without using air-conditioning units.

These efforts have some additional downstream benefits. For one thing, they lower the carbon footprint of a company’s data center. It’s still early days, but governments around the globe are gearing up to increase the pressure on companies regarding environmental issues, including measuring the amount of carbon each company spews into the atmosphere. And one of the biggest sources of carbon in any company comes from all that wattage in the data center.

Unfortunately for the people running data centers, a lot of employees may not want to move to remote locations to manage the data. There is also a shortage of people who are skilled in designing data centers.

After years of throwing inexpensive hardware at our processing problems, we didn’t think we would need the data center design skills that are typically associated with running minicomputers and mainframes rather than PC servers. However, if you look at the design of a blade server today, it’s more reminiscent of a minicomputer than it is of a PC.

The end result is that if you do decide to redesign or relocate your data center, you might not be able to find an experienced person to do the job. Even if you do find a skilled professional, chances are good that you’re going to pay top dollar for his or her services.

In the short term, we should be able to count on virtualization software to mitigate some of this pending crisis, but the overall demand for processing power is starting to outstrip our ability to cost-effectively power it. Down the road, this may help justify further investment in photonic technologies that don’t generate nearly as much heat. It may even provide justifications for using nuclear power as a cheap source of energy in the data center.

In the meantime, any organization that is running a data center of any size will have to deal with power and cooling issues in the very near future. Whatever approach you take, you can be sure that the solution you deploy is going to require a significant up-front investment—one that will likely come as a shock to your organization.


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