Space Gains

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2009-02-22

Mark Wood understands the value of going green. It’s good for business and it’s good for the world. But, these days, plugging into environmental consciousness is only part of the story.

The director of data center infrastructure for Highmark, a Camp Hill, Pa., health insurance provider, is looking to build the optimal energy-efficient IT infrastructure. “It’s no longer possible to take a casual attitude about energy costs,” Wood says. “It’s become a fundamental part of operating a business.”

With 2007 revenues of $11.9 billion and more than 11,000 employees, Highmark has established itself as the largest health care insurer in the state. Now it’s confronting energy-efficiency issues head on. It has introduced sophisticated energy auditing tools, virtualization software, data center analysis and management systems, as well as the decidedly low-tech method of educating employees about when to turn systems off. The firm also has upgraded facilities with smart energy and lighting systems.

“There’s no question that it’s a challenge to transition to more energy-efficient systems,” Wood acknowledges. But as energy prices rise and corporate budgets shrink, he and other IT executives are beginning to understand how a good energy policy can supercharge performance through direct electricity savings, a diminished need for facilities, and lower capital costs related to servers, storage and other devices.

“Energy efficiency is no longer an option,” states Anil Desai, an independent consultant based in Austin, Texas. “It’s part of a strategic approach to business, and it is evolving quickly.”

That’s hard to dispute. As companies migrate en masse to online transactions, audio and video, electronic records, and wireless and satellite systems, the demand for data center space and servers continues to climb. Moreover, a spate of government regulations, enhanced business continuity and disaster recovery requirements, and the need to archive and retain data are forcing enterprises to do more with fewer resources.

“Energy use and greenhouse gas production are now mainstream issues,” says Andrea Moffat, senior director of corporate programs at Ceres, a Boston-based business sustainability advisory firm. Adds Daniel Sitarz, author of Greening Your Business and a lecturer on sustainability and environmental issues at Southern Illinois University: “Energy issues aren’t going away. It’s something that every organization must deal with.”

The Post-Green Era

Only a few years ago, the concept of going green was reserved mostly for tree-hugging environmentalists bent on making the world a better place. Today, business and IT are heading into a bold new era that could easily be called post-green. However, many executives—and companies—are still out of touch with the need to boost data center energy efficiency and build a more optimized IT infrastructure.

“For years, there hadn’t been a big emphasis on energy consumption,” says Simon Mingay, research vice president for Gartner. “Power was cheap and plentiful, and price wasn’t a limiting factor. There also hadn’t been much of a focus on greenhouse emissions. But the current economic downturn is forcing organizations to look at costs more closely than ever.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the nation’s servers and data centers consumed approximately 61 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006—double 2000’s consumption. And there’s no end in sight. The same EPA report says energy consumption could double again by 2011—even with more efficient systems and better monitoring methods.

Meanwhile, consulting firm McKinsey reports that information and communications technologies—including laptops and PCs, data centers and computing networks, mobile phones and telecommunications networks—could be among the biggest greenhouse gas emitters by 2020.

Many companies are beginning to take action. At Highmark, for example, the introduction of a new corporate data center in November 2005 represented an opportunity to embrace more energy-efficient practices. The company launched its initiative with a U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified facility. It features an Energy Star roof that collects rainwater and stores it in a 100,000-gallon underground tank. It’s used for gray water in restrooms and in cooling towers for the data center (the system evaporates 1,200 gallons of water each day). The building also includes smart lighting systems.

But the company didn’t stop there. Highmark, using energy auditing tools and consulting expertise from IBM, then conducted a thermal analysis of its data center and determined how to space servers and racks for maximum performance and reduced cooling costs. “The important thing was to understand every piece of equipment and what was actually drawing the power,” says Wood, who discovered that 80 percent of the firm’s business transactions were pulling only 20 percent of the power.

“We found that a lot of servers in our data center weren’t being used, even though they were powered up,” Wood continues. “So, the first thing we did was power down those servers when they weren’t in use. Most data centers operate in always-on mode, but we wanted to go to an on-off approach.”

At the same time, IT began switching off unused systems in burning rooms and taking a closer look at how employees used their computers. Finally, the company adopted a server virtualization and consolidation strategy. As a result, three-quarters of Highmark’s 400 servers are now virtualized.

“We picked the low-hanging fruit and then began to look for more opportunities,” Wood recalls. The bottom line? Highmark cut kilowatt-hours by 500,000 during 2008, which represents a net savings of approximately $52,000 on the electric bill. That decrease is significant, he says, noting that “in 2010, the rate caps will be lifted by our local utility company, and that will increase our electric bill by 20 percent to 40 percent.”

In addition, through virtualization, Highmark has reduced equipment demands—and the resulting energy requirements—by a 14-1 ratio. The firm also has slashed overall energy consumption by 10 percent to 12 percent.

Highmark is now looking to adopt disk virtualization and to possibly use wind and solar technologies to help power the data center. “We do not have an unlimited budget, so we have to pick our battles and ensure that we’re achieving maximum results and ROI,” Wood explains.

Power Plays

Although a rise in energy prices is fueling the transition to a more efficient IT infrastructure, new tools and technologies make the goal of cutting costs and going green far more achievable. Intel and AMD continue to introduce faster and better processors that consume less energy. Server and PC producers have designed machines that pull less power or use electricity more efficiently. And IT administrators now have more powerful tools available to manage a data center and an enterprise computing environment.

One of the hottest areas is demand-side energy management analysis, which helps IT determine power profiles for data centers and other computing environments. For example, IBM’s Tivoli Monitoring software provides detailed data about energy usage patterns within data centers, along with information about energy consumption within the overall facility infrastructure.

Sentilla’s software measures energy consumption at the server level to generate a profile of use in a single snapshot. And Enviance offers a software-as-a-service platform that allows companies to centrally manage and report corporate social responsibility data, including greenhouse gases.

Newer systems provide monitoring and measurement tools at the source—and transmit data wirelessly from individual servers to the remote management system. Consequently, an administrator can see when and where the power load is peaking and take corrective action, thereby creating a far more proactive approach to tracking energy consumption and carbon emissions. That’s important, because one-third to one-half of overall IT costs are the result of energy consumption. And things aren’t about to improve. According to the Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario, lifetime energy costs will soon exceed the cost of servers.

The University of Minnesota understands this issue and is sold on the concept of system monitoring. Pete Bartz, assistant director of the Office of Information Technology at the 51,000-plus student institution, says the IT organization manages 80,000 ports and more than 50,000 endpoints. By automating network management and policies through Microsoft Active Directory and Entuity’s Eye of the Storm, IT is able to switch off about 25,000 devices each night, netting annual savings of more than $1.4 million.

The IT office also developed energy profiles for various departments and can monitor energy pull via a green dashboard. All of this is saving additional sums that run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, Bartz says.

Another way to monitor energy usage is with the U.S. Department of Energy’s free diagnostics and analysis solution, DC Pro. This software generates a profile that displays how servers and other devices draw power within a data center. It can break down information about specific energy streams and help system administrators view data about energy purchases, data center energy draw and savings potential, as well as provide a list of actions that are likely to lead to cost savings.

At the same time, industry consortiums such as The Green Grid, headquartered in Beaverton, Ore., have attempted to introduce metrics that are reflective of real-world use. Regardless of what software an organization uses to monitor and analyze power consumption, it’s essential to know how the data impacts the enterprise.

“One of the biggest problems,” Gartner’s Mingay observes, “is a lack of understanding about what is being measured and how it matters. The same data can lead to very different conclusions and actions, depending on how it is interpreted and used.”

Space Gains

Some of the most important tools in many organizations’ energy arsenals are virtualization and consolidation. Virtualization software can double or triple utilization rates and purge unneeded systems—often older energy hogs.

Consultant Desai points out that server virtualization is just one piece of the puzzle, with storage, application and presentation virtualization also paying dividends. “Although virtualization is not the answer in itself,” he says, “it can provide impressive results and lead to significantly lower energy bills.”

A growing number of organizations are joining the virtualization and consolidation bandwagon. At Xasax, a Naples, Fla., provider of software for high-frequency trading systems, virtualization has become a major contributor to lower energy costs. The company has already converted 200 physical servers into 500 virtualized machines. It costs Xasax approximately $2,400 per year to power, cool and host each physical server, says CEO Noah Lieske. Using Voltaire’s Infiniband switching fabric, the company has lowered the cost to approximately $240 to power, cool and host a virtual machine.

Another organization that’s sold on virtualization and consolidation is Fulton County, Ga., which provides services for 988,000 citizens. With a work force of 5,500 and more than 6,000 workstations, the county is obviously concerned with energy efficiency. “We are getting a sense of how important it is to operate in a more energy-efficient manner,” says Jay Terrell, deputy director of IT. “We understand that we must make changes.”

Fulton County initially selected 125 servers for virtualization, which allowed it to consolidate underutilized legacy servers at a ratio of at least 8-to-1. The net result—through a combination of VMware and a new Fujitsu blade server platform—is a savings of more than $44,000 per year in power costs.

Terrell is also retiring old hardware. “We realized that we had many older Wintel servers that were beyond their useful lifespan,” he says. “Mean time between failures was shrinking, and the need to constantly upgrade the system was growing.”

Although the primary benefit of life cycle management is an optimal IT infrastructure, it also results in lower energy costs as more efficient systems are cycled in. In fact, Fulton County is now scrutinizing energy usage when making a purchasing decision.

Desai warns that too many organizations overlook asset and life cycle management. In some instances, he argues, the cost savings that result from postponing a purchase are more than offset by the higher energy costs that older systems incur. However, he adds that in other instances, an organization may benefit from extending the equipment life cycle. “The key is to conduct an audit and know what the situation is and which approach is best,” he says.

Some companies are even rethinking the structure of data centers—partly for cost considerations related to energy. “Companies are looking at mini data centers and even data centers in a box, which can be used for disaster recovery and niche operations,” Desai says. Others are considering reducing cooling—or using it in a more targeted manner. “It isn’t always necessary to keep a data center at 60 to 65 degrees,” he says.

Finally, many organizations are focusing on training employees to use IT resources more efficiently. Gartner’s Mingay says workers must learn to turn off computers when they’re not being used, and IT staffs should understand usage patterns and move toward a system that switches inactive systems off at prescribed times, while offering remote wake-up for patching and other administrative functions. “Unfortunately, too many IT departments get busy and feel they have a lot more important things to do, so basic power management techniques get lost in the shuffle,” he says.

The good news, Mingay adds, is that the current economic downturn is forcing organizations to look more closely at these issues. “The reality,” he says, “is that most energy-saving measures pay for themselves in a period ranging from a few months to a few years. In the scheme of things, it’s a very attractive deal. And there’s the added benefit of doing something good for the environment.”