Monsanto Grows Green

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2007-11-29

Energy efficiency is a hot topic these days, but green IT at Monsanto means more than finding servers that burn fewer watts. The St. Louis-based agricultural company is at the forefront of research into more productive and resistant seeds. By harnessing the power of technology it has been able to genetically modify seeds-including corn, cotton and soybean-so farmers can generate greater yields per acre and weather drought while using fewer herbicides and pesticides.

"We're a company focused on agriculture, but we're also a company based on technological innovation," says Monsanto CIO Mark Showers. "Every day Monsanto scientists analyze terabytes of data collected from laboratories, field trials and breeding stations around the world."

The heart of much of that research for the past 40 years has been the company's primary data center on its main campus in Creve Coeur, Mo. But with the company's storage requirements growing at an annual rate of 50 percent, the four-decade-old building was straining to maintain the reliability and availability required by contemporary standards. Built in an era long before powerful blade servers were crammed into cabinets, the data center was forced to rely on a large central cooling system to keep temperatures within acceptable ranges, as well as a number of smaller cooling units activated when the main system had problems or couldn't keep up.

In 2003, Monsanto undertook an analysis of its data center storage and processing capacity needs. Retrofitting the data center was considered, but the company decided a new building would be more cost-effective and would open new opportunities for conserving energy and improving physical security.

"Energy efficiency was on our minds right from the beginning," says Showers. "The building had to meet our business needs and be cost-effective, but we were also very conscious of how it could be done in an environmentally sensitive way."

The results of those efforts came to fruition last month, when Monsanto's IT staff was scheduled to move into the new $21 million data center over Thanksgiving weekend. The 40,000-square-foot building not only supports the company's extensive research and development efforts but serves as the hub for its business applications, from accepting customer orders over the Internet to supporting the core SAP infrastructure. Roughly 900 servers are housed in the center, providing more than 1.1 petabytes of storage. That's about the same number of servers as in the old data center, but the addition of virtualization technology means increased capacity.

The data center was built to meet specifications under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which was devised by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. LEED provides benchmarks to measure the environmental friendliness of a structure including sustainable site development, where steps are taken to preserve existing habitats, water savings, energy efficiency, material selection and indoor environmental quality. Monsanto anticipates the center will gain its LEED certification in the spring, making it the third LEED-certified center in the country. Fannie Mae opened the first LEED-certified data center, its Urbana Technology Center in Maryland, in August 2005, and insurer Highmark followed with its data center in Pennsylvania.

Achieving LEED status is difficult for power-hungry data centers, but more companies are coming on board. Data center operator 365 Main pledged this spring that all future data centers it builds will be LEED-certified.

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Showers attributes Monsanto's energy conservation success to the company that helped design the new data center, Bruns-Pak of Edison, N.J. "It had been 40 years since we built our last data center, so there was very little expertise sitting around the table at Monsanto," he says.

"Data centers are our only line of business," says Mark Evanko, a principle engineer and partner with Bruns-Pak. The company offers consulting advice, design and engineering services, and construction project management. The only thing it doesn't do is the actual construction. It has a client list that spans most industries and includes Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Wachovia Bank and the U.S. Postal Service.

Energy efficiency is a high priority with every client his firm sees these days, Evanko says, and for good reason: Data centers typically consume 15 times more energy per square foot than a typical office building. In the U.S., data centers consume an estimated 20 billion to 30 billion kilowatt hours of electricity (about the same as the entire state of Utah) and the number of installed servers is forecasted to increase as much as 50 percent over the next three to four years, according to research firm IDC.

One of the more innovative features of the new Monsanto data center is that it relies almost entirely on air flow and air-flow handling for cooling. The building is void of any cooling units found in conventional data centers. The building has two floors: The first floor has a 20-foot ceiling and houses all the utilities-power switches and backup, the air-flow handling units (essentially, large fans) and cable distribution. The second floor has a 17-foot ceiling with a three-foot raised floor. The exterior walls have a similar three-foot air space and together the walls and raised floors provide a space for air circulation.

A good deal of time was spent during the planning stages modeling the air flow in the building, Showers says. Essentially, the design was based on the concept of hot and cold aisles of air. The hot-running servers suck cold air up from the raised floor space and the heated air then rises and gets "flushed" around to the edges of the raised floor and is sucked back in through the exterior walls and down to the first floor, where it cools. The air in the data center is recirculated five times per hour, and approximately 20 percent outside air is introduced with each air change.

Another impressive feature of the data center is its exterior wall. A glass shield serves as a protective barrier; it's able to withstand a tornado with 200 mph winds, and able to deflect 90 percent of the sun's heat.

On the computing infrastructure side, Showers says Monsanto has focused on server consolidation, relying on such technologies as VMWare's virtualization software, which essentially divides one physical server into multiple virtual environments. For example, Monsanto was able to consolidate 40 servers running an Oracle database in the SAP environment to just three servers.

Looking only at the building infrastructure, Showers says, the new data center is 27 percent more energy efficient than the old building. Energy consumed by computers is a somewhat different story. Even though technologies like server virtualization and more powerful dual-core blade servers have meant Monsanto can do a lot more with its existing infrastructure, its overall computing needs are growing rapidly-30 percent over the last 12 months. That means total energy consumption is remaining the same or growing, so there's still plenty of room for improvement.

Close to 150 employees worked in the old data center building, a number that was uncomfortably high for Monsanto. While physical security precautions restricted access to sensitive systems, Monsanto wanted to reduce the number of non-IT personnel in the building. The new building can operate with just seven full-time employees, which greatly improves the physical security profile.

"With a separate building we were really able to segregate it and significantly limit who can have access," Showers says. "That in itself is a major improvement for us."

at a Glance
Headquarters: 800 North Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63167
Phone: (314) 694-1000
Business: Provides a wide range of agricultural products, including genetically engineered seeds and herbicides, and technology to make better breeding decisions.
CEO: Hugh Grant
CIO: Mark Showers
CFO: Terrell Crews
Financials: $8.6 billion in revenue; $934 million in profit (fiscal year 2007)
Challenge: Build a new energy-efficient data center to support increased genetic research and improve physical security.