Virtualization: PG&E's Power Play

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2007-02-20

While oil prices have retreated significantly from last year's high, no one expects a return to the cheap energy that companies enjoyed just a few years ago. In fact, most American corporations are aggressively looking for ways to cut their electric bills—and a key focus is their air-conditioned data centers and the power-hungry computer servers they house.

A report in the July issue of CIO Insight said that the amount of electricity needed to run a big data center could power a city of 40,000 people. As a result, energy costs and power grid capacity are being pushed to the brink—so much so that research company Gartner says half of all data centers could run into problems by 2008.

"I've been talking to a lot of customers about the challenges they have," says Mark Bramfitt, principal program manager for the High Tech Energy Efficient Team at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E); the team works with customers on cutting data-center energy needs.

"For [PG&E customers], it's the space and power cooling issues," Bramfitt points out. "They're running out of physical space, running out of power capability to add equipment, running out of cooling capacity."

As if to underscore the concern about information technologies' energy needs, President Bush signed a bill in December requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the rapid growth and energy consumption of computer data centers.

PG&E, well aware of the need to find ways to power computers more efficiently, in November joined with a number of technology companies to offer businesses financial incentives for consolidating data centers and adopting energy-efficient server technology. PG&E says that customers can earn a rebate of as much as $4 million per project site.

But PG&E isn't just telling everyone else what to do. The energy company is practicing what it preaches. "The ability to cool the data centers in terms of the servers themselves, and the increased cost to do so—these are the things we're working on," says the utility company's data center manager, Jose Argenal.

In particular, PG&E is implementing energy efficiency measures in its own data centers. PG&E has consolidated its servers in three data centers; turned to virtualization, which allows companies to run multiple operating systems and applications on a single server; and undergone an extensive review of its energy usage to ferret out waste.

Rack Them Up

One of the key factors driving the corporate move to conserve power is the explosion in the use of servers and data storage, what Gartner describes as higher server densities.

Most American corporations are growing their server and data storage usage anywhere from 5% to 15% annually, according to PG&E's Bramfitt. "Then, with financial services and Web-based companies like eBay, Google and Yahoo," he says, "the growth rate can be 50% to 100% in their infrastructure needs."

PG&E itself is experiencing high infrastructure growth. "What we're seeing at PG&E," Argenal says, "is that our growth in storage alone last year was 150%, and in servers 125% to 130%."

PG&E has three major data centers: one at its Diablo Canyon power plant; one in Fairfield, Calif., which is the production facility; and a third in San Francisco. The latter handles development, testing, disaster recovery and quality assurance. In a preliminary move to create efficiencies, the company moved servers that were located outside its existing data centers into one of its three facilities. "As an example, if we had a server running production that was located on one of the office floors, we brought it to the Fairfield production center," Argenal says.

With all the company's servers now situated in its data centers, PG&E is utilizing virtualization, which the utility views as one of the most important tools in leveraging server use to achieve energy improvements.

Using VMware's virtualization software, PG&E is consolidating some 300 Unix servers in hopes of ultimately reducing that number to 30. The VMware tool lets a company pool multiple resources, including operating systems, onto a single server.

"Typically, most servers in data centers are operating at something like 10% to 20% of their capacity," Bramfitt explains. "Virtualization allows you to boost that capacity up into the 80% area by doing multiple work streams at the same time. That buys the customer room to grow back into their data center, and a whole lot of energy efficiency both in power and cooling."

"Virtualization is one of the best things we've been able to do in terms of getting maximum efficiency from our servers," Argenal adds. "VMware allows you to basically have a server that's dedicated to a single application and runs many more applications on it concurrently."

Power Plugs

PG&E is also working with IBM on data center cooling initiatives. IBM is doing thermal analysis in all the company's data centers.

The process typically pinpoints hot spots and offers recommendations to alleviate the problem. Once the information is captured, Argenal says, "We know what we can do to basically ensure that we get a coefficient that lowers our cost in terms of being more efficient cooling-wise."

In PG&E's case, IBM discovered why the utility was experiencing power usage peaks in the morning as the result of high temperatures in its data centers. The reason: PG&E shut off its chillers from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. "During this period, the equipment was still running and created an enormous amount of heat. As a result, when the chillers [went] back on, it took longer to cool the environment," Argenal explains. "IBM said we weren't being efficient."

The solution was to run the chillers 24/7, thereby eliminating the power peaks. Argenal notes, however, that he was initially only able to adapt this 24/7 approach at the Fairfield facility, where he is in charge. The other two data centers are run by PG&E's building management group. "I sat down with them last week and asked if they would run the chillers around the clock, and they agreed," he explains.

The fact that the information-technology department would have to clear a data center policy through building management, though, underscores one of the potential problems in greening the computer center. In the past, these facilities have been almost entirely under building management or facilities management teams.

As a result, information-technology departments often weren't concerned about energy efficiencies and rising energy costs in the data center, and the issue, according to Bramfitt, didn't get proper attention. That's changing, though, as I.T. begins to take co-responsibility for managing I.T. power efficiencies. "The absolute first step in addressing these issues is for the I.T. guys and the facilities management guys to talk, as was the case with Jose and our building management group," Bramfitt says.

Granted, the return on investment that energy conservation generates can be significant, especially for companies building new data centers, but money wasn't the overriding issue for PG&E. "These can range all over the map," Bramfitt says. "Customers who are planning brand-new data centers can effect changes in design and specification of equipment and get really great paybacks in energy savings in short order. With a data center that's being retrofitted, it takes a bit longer because you're replacing equipment. Even so, a one- to-two-year payback and a 10%, 20% or 30% ROI is achievable."

Saving money is likewise not Argenal's primary goal.

"The cost of power in the data center is a secondary issue for me," he concludes. "My overriding concern is, how do I keep my environment at the optimal level to allow for maximum reliability of equipment? This is equipment I need to be able to continue with all the operations and development, and yet be able to fit everything in the same floor space we have today, the same footprint."


1 Market, Spear Tower,
Suite 2400, San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 267-7070
Business: Generates, procures, and transmits electricity and natural gas.
CEO: Thomas B. King
Technology chief: Patricia M. Lawicki, vice president and CIO
Financials (for 9 months ended Sept. 6, 2006): $9.33 billion in revenue; $839 million in profit.
Challenge: Create energy efficiencies in its data centers to drive down costs and energy use, and serve as a model for customers.