Examining Energy Consumption in the Data Center

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 2008-04-21

Call it the burden of enterprise growth: Even in  a souring economy, the prosperity in many industries is driving expansion, leading to the need for larger, more robust data centers that can handle much more storage than is currently being used.

But at the same time, limited power resources are threatening to check that growth, leaving IT managers and CIOs pondering the best way to scale up without blacking out.

“Virtually everyone with a data center is expecting to expand in the next 30 months, which means we’re looking at broad, industry-wide crisis," says Ken Brill, executive director of the Uptime Institute.

Currently, facility costs have climbed from about 2 percent of budgets to 5 percent. But as power demands increase, Brill estimates that number will zoom up to 30 percent within just a few years, which could shut down other IT functions like application development. That could leave IT managers scrambling to get enough power for storage and servers, since demand for storage and connectivity is expected to increase.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report from August 2007 noted that IT data centers consume up to 15 to 20 times more energy per square foot than a typical office building. Considering that most cubicles don’t have a high-density server tucked beneath the desk, complete with its own liquid-cooled cabinet, the EPA's observation won’t come as a surprise to any data center managers.

But what should spark interest is the agency’s projection that data center power consumption is due to significantly increase in just the next three years, by at least40 percent. The agency notes that this will stress an already-strained electrical power infrastructure and jack up energy prices that are already uncomfortably high.

One much-discussed tactic is “green” technologies and strategies with a focus on boosting energy efficiency. But not all green storage is created equal, according to Greg Schultz at StorageIO.

In a recent report, Schultz observed that enterprises aren’t just having difficulty with increasing efficiency, but also with current consumption issues. Cooling and floor space challenges have created bottlenecks, he noted, and if they continue, application growth and business information needs could be affected.

Although there may be challenging years ahead in terms of power consumption, some enterprises are finding ways to increase efficiency without having to purchase a significant amount of new equipment.

At Tucson Electric Power Company (TEP), for example, there’s been a focus on server virtualization and consolidation, notes Chris Rima, supervisor of IT systems, adding that the center has virtualized over 90 percent of its servers, saving about 50 percent per year in infrastructure and energy costs.

“The strategy is important for energy conservation,” says Rima. “It was started out of necessity, actually, because we ran out of UPS [uninterruptible power supply] capacity and we needed to buy more time before we could upgrade our older data center.”

Although the virtualization push bought TEP an extra two years, it also proved to be a boon for cost containment and a reduction in power consumption. Also, as a utility company, demonstrating the importance of power savings to customers has been a powerful driver. “It’s important for us to set an example,” Rima notes. “What we’ve done can be replicated in any commercial environment.”

Given its industry, TEP is acutely aware of power consumption issues, and the IT managers there feel that it shouldn’t just be utility companies that are diving deeper into this particular challenge.

“Strategies like provisioning and virtualization are evolutionary,” says Tony Edelbrock, TEP senior systems administrator. "This is a big deal, and it appears to be the future of enterprise computing." He added that companies with environmental constraints -- covering power, UPS, and cooling -- are using virtualization to overcome the limitations, while still managing to provide additional resources to their clients.

In addition to virtualization and consolidation, enterprises should start seriously rethinking how IT issues are handled, Brill says. “This is a crisis that requires radical changes in order to go away, and those changes need to come from the top.”

At most organizations, he says, IT is aware of facilities costs and power-management topics, but COOs, CEOs, and even some CIOs, have little idea that there’s cause for concern.

Brill recommends that companies appoint an “energy czar” whose sole focus is on creating metrics, tracking efficiency and tweaking strategies, such as buying more efficient hardware, disposing of comatose servers and setting ambitious goals.

“Senior-level executives don’t appreciate the magnitude of savings that can occur,” says Brill. “There needs to be a mandate from the highest levels to make people pay attention and develop these new skills at power management. And we don’t have any more time to waste.”