Green Computing: Hype Cycle or Actual Trend?

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 2008-04-23

Green strategies have been so touted and discussed in the last 18 months, that it's beginning to seem like all hardware will soon be dipped in that color just to be more appealing. But despite all the boasts of how technology is being refreshed for better energy efficiency and less waste, are data centers really getting in the green groove?

According to a recent report, the answer seems to be: not quite yet.

The Business Performance Management (BPM) Forum noted in an April report that most IT professionals polled cite environmentally responsible operations as a priority, but still lack the resources to control their energy consumption.

According to the study, three-quarters of respondents—IT professionals who represented 150 companies—gave their organizations a grade of C or worse in ability to control IT energy consumption. Almost two-thirds have no specific green plans in place, even for the long term, and nearly 20 percent spend more than $1 million per year on IT energy, with 8 percent spending more than $10 million.

For many, the crunch seems to be on, with about half of those polled noting that IT-related energy consumption had increased in their organization last year, and 46 percent reporting that they've run out of space, power or cooling capacity.

"The findings weren't a complete surprise," says Derek Kober, director of the Business Performance Management (BPM) Forum. "But it was surprising how much concern, intent and priority were expressed about reducing consumption, compared with how much action is being taken. There's a big gap between the two."

One of the major reasons that data centers seem to be lagging when it comes to green strategies is that there are no policies being put in place, notes Kober. "For many, there's nothing to guide the process, and they feel they're too busy to formalize a program," he says. "Also, they feel it will be too costly, without realizing that small, affordable changes can make a big difference."

Selling Popsicles to Eskimos
Some data centers may have the capacity to go greener with what currently exists, but may not even be aware of the functionality they have in-house. Drue Reeves, an analyst with the Burton Group, says: "We're seeing a 'sales of popsicles to Eskimos' kind of thing. Some vendors have already had features in their products that could increase energy efficiency, but now they're trying to resell them with that as a selling point."

Although green technology doesn't seem to be gaining the traction that its enthusiasts might like, it's probable that it will begin to take off in the near future, as older hardware gets replaced, Reeves notes.

"It doesn't make sense to replace a thousand servers just to get something more
energy-efficient," he says. "You'd end up paying millions just to save thousands." He anticipates that instead of a rip-and-replace strategy, companies will begin to think more strategically about what's currently running, and whether so many pieces of equipment are necessary, similar to turning off the lights in rooms that aren't used, Reeves adds.

"Last year seemed to be about energy efficiency for servers, and this year will be about efficiency for storage," he says. "But no matter what the technology, it's more about efficacy and proper management strategy than what's put in place."

For some data centers, going green may be an optimistic, long-term goal, but the short-term reality is that they're consuming power—and plenty of it—and can't shift gears very easily.

One example is Terremark Worldwide, which has a co-location hosting facility in Florida that can do only limited tweaking, since it allows customers to bring in their own equipment. The facility is 750,000 square feet and has a monthly power bill of $630,000, according to Ben Stewart, company spokesperson.

"When you talk about using that much power every month, swapping out a few pieces of hardware or recycling your paper is like going to the ocean and dropping a
five-pound bag of sugar into it to try to sweeten the water," he says.

Although builders of a newer Terremark facility in Washington, D.C., are implementing a number of green strategies during its construction, the Florida location depends on coal- and oil-driven generators that make its "carbon footprint enormous," Stewart notes. Also, its location doesn't allow for the type of "free cooling" strategies employed by northern data centers, which can bring in cold air from outside of the building during the winter.

For a data center of Terremark's size, the best option would be to move to an area with hydroelectric power, Stewart says, but in such areas, either the power is already being consumed by other companies, or there's no way to run fiber to the location. So, instead, there's just that enormous power bill and numerous conversations with customers to persuade them to buy more energy-efficient equipment, Stewart says.

"Everything is a trade-off," he says. "Every decision brings up other issues. I'm sure every data center would love to be green and more efficient, since it's good for the planet, but the reality is that there's only so much we can do right now."