Business Value Powers Green IT

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2010-08-13

See also: Inside an Energy Efficient Data Center, Cooling Data Center Costs.

Joe Parrino isn’t kidding when he says that a green data center is a critical part of running a business well. In an era of spiking energy prices and oppressive cost pressures, squeezing out savings through energy efficiency is nothing less than a mission for the United Parcel Service (UPS) facilities engineer. 

“It’s just as important as any other business operation,” he says. “We have an obligation to the company and to the world to reduce consumption and boost efficiency.”

UPS has delivered in a big way. Since 2006, when the company formulated a strategic plan for energy efficiency and green IT, it has trimmed its energy footprint by nearly 18 percent. Among other things, UPS has made changes to its data center, embraced server virtualization, and developed a strategy for dealing with server refreshes and other equipment. “We’ve already grabbed the low-hanging fruit, but the job isn’t close to being finished,” Parrino says.

Make no mistake, green IT is going mainstream. According to data center association AFCOM, slightly more than 71 percent of organizations surveyed indicate they are now actively engaged in green initiatives. 

“The situation has evolved from focusing on a few key areas to the greening of the entire platform,” says Gary Davis, director of data center practice for PlanNet Consulting. What’s more, “Organizations aren’t only looking at cost savings; they’re also considering their image,” he adds.

Indeed, enterprises are turning to an array of tools and technologies to amp up the savings. The list includes green building methods; solar power; water and ambient air exchange for cooling; lighting; server and rack configurations; and virtualization. Meanwhile, organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Green Grid, an industry consortium that promotes energy efficiency, have created calculators and other tools that analyze and track energy consumption.

Yet challenges remain. AFCOM found that only about 42 percent of organizations have a formal green IT plan in place. In addition, companies are struggling to find the money to upgrade buildings, equipment and systems, and many lack the necessary buy-in from senior management. 

A recent IBM survey uncovered a “green gap” in U.S. office buildings: Only one-third of office workers say their buildings are environmentally friendly; 14 percent say their buildings use renewable energy, and three-quarters would increase conservation efforts if rewarded. 

Part of the problem is that IT usually isn’t charged for the energy used in data centers. “IT often doesn’t know what energy costs,” points out W. Pitt Turner, executive director of the Uptime Institute in Danville, Calif. “So why should CIOs spend more money to buy energy-efficient technology when that will increase IT’s capital costs while the energy reductions will help another department’s bottom line. 

“Energy costs need to be shared among all related departments—facilities, IT, finance, etc. All stakeholders, including procurement and line-of-business managers, need to be involved in energy-reduction efforts.” 

But progress is being made. As Stephen Singh, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), puts it: “We have encountered the perfect storm. Higher energy prices, an economic downturn and growing pressure to be socially responsible have made green a priority.” 

A few years ago, the idea of going green seemed best relegated to companies with an eco-friendly reputation. In many cases, major investments in energy-efficient systems seemed like an expensive and time-consuming diversion. 

Times change. As the economy tanked and energy prices spiked, perceptions began to shift. “Even companies that were not the least bit eco-conscious a couple of years ago now understand that they must adopt green measures,” Singh continues. 

The primary drivers? Cost savings, corporate image and marketing, and an understanding that it’s good to be on the right side of an important issue. “Social responsibility isn’t a one-and-done issue any longer,” PlanNet's Davis says.

The drive toward energy-efficient IT is occurring none too soon. Demand for power is skyrocketing. Today, a typical data center draws somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 to 2 megawatts at any given instant. 

Disturbingly, analysts and energy experts predict that within five years, a data center’s peak electrical draw could rise to between 10 and 20 megawatts—unless enterprises take more drastic steps to trim consumption. A reduction in energy of 1 kilowatt per hour translates into savings of between $8 million and $17 million a year.

Developing Benchmarks

UPS understands those statistics very well. It began examining energy usage in the summer of 2006 and developed benchmarks to guide a green initiative. “Previously, data center issues revolved around capacity and reliability,” Parrino says. “Energy footprint wasn’t a consideration.”
To correct that, he created a spreadsheet and began comparing the company’s energy consumption stats with data from the Uptime Institute and other sources. “For the first time, we were able to home in on key issues,” he says.

Parrino and his staff then set their sights on making improvements to the data center building, which is one of the nation’s largest. The first step: improve the efficiency of a heat exchange pump that the company had installed in 2000. 

UPS had previously used the pump only about three months a year. However, by retrofitting chilled water pipes and optimizing the flow of water through a plate heat exchanger, it has been able to use the heat exchange pump up to six months per year.

The modifications have allowed UPS to shut down a 400-kilowatt chiller for about half the year, Parrino says. That equates to 1.75 million kilowatt hours annually—or roughly 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide. 

Though the system cost about $100,000 to install, the initial dollar savings exceeded that amount. “We have since paid for the device many times over, and we will continue to reap the benefits of it for years to come,” he says.
And UPS didn’t stop there. It reconfigured the spacing of server racks and other equipment. Parrino focused heavily on problems revolving around hot aisle/cold aisle configurations, blanking panels, airflow patterns, cable positioning and rack tiles. 

For example, he found that power distribution units (PDUs) were leaking approximately 2,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of air through perforated tops. “They didn’t need the amount of air they were receiving,” Parrino says. “By covering them up, we were able to shut off computer
air handlers.”

Finally, UPS raised the floor in its uninterruptible power supply room. This allowed the company to shut off 28 of the 65 air handlers installed in 1995—and trim another 1.8 million kilowatts per year of energy. It also raised the data center temperature to the upper 70s and installed systems to closely monitor airflow patterns. 

Factor in a server virtualization initiative that’s growing at a robust 20 percent to 30 percent annual rate and a move to more-efficient Energy Star-compliant servers and systems, and UPS has established itself as a green leader.

Designing greener data centers is all about putting the right tools, technology and processes in place, PwC’s Singh says. It’s essential to conduct detailed energy audits, install systems and software that monitor and automate power consumption patterns, and achieve a holistic view of how and where the enterprise is using energy. 

“Metrics and measurements are the keys to success,” says John Tuccillo, the president and CEO of industry consortium Green Grid and a vice president at APC by Schneider Electric.

Over the past few years, the EPA has developed sophisticated auditing tools, while firms including Hewlett-Packard (HP) and IBM have the ability to conduct a detailed analysis of data centers and their equipment. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Green Grid, which has more than 200 members, have ratcheted up the stakes by establishing metrics and standards, measurement tools and best practices. 

The benefits of energy efficiency extend across all industries, according to Tuccillo. A key metric that the Green Grid introduced is power usage effectiveness (PUE), which examines a facility’s total energy consumption and determines how much power actually goes into IT equipment. The higher the figure, the greener the facility. 

Another key benchmark is data center infrastructure efficiency (DCiE). “Unless you know how and where you’re consuming energy, there’s no way to drive improvement,” Tuccillo points out.

The Green Grid provides PUE and DCiE estimators, reporting tools and power policy tools at its Website. Still, PUE and DCiE don’t provide a total and complete picture. 

Other organizations, such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), also provide measurement solutions. And the EPA’s auditing tool goes beyond the basic PUE equation: It looks at all energy sources—diesel fuel, natural gas and different sources of electricity—to gain a more complete energy
consumption picture.

Living the Concept

One company with robust measurement tools in place is Salt River Project (SRP), one of the largest public utilities in the United States, with more than 935,000 customers in the Phoenix area. Achieving a total view of data center efficiency is paramount for the enterprise, says John Bistany, manager of IT infrastructure. 

The utility, which continually promotes energy savings and green initiatives for its customers, understands the urgency of living the concept. It has established an internal sustainability team that focuses on company operations and examines ways to become greener. 

In June 2009, SRP worked with HP over a six-week period to complete a comprehensive energy audit and establish baseline PUE levels. Among other things, the organization evaluated the impact of previously installed hot and cold aisles. It also looked at how modifying server spacing and cabling would alter energy consumption. 

With an understanding of cause/effect relationships, IT put an automated control system in place. Soon, SRP will move to advanced monitoring tools to manage and control power consumption on a real-time basis. It will also evaluate higher temperature set points for the data center. Already, the utility has installed separate power meters for the data center so it can examine its usage separately from the overall energy costs for the building.
In addition, SRP designed a space above the ceiling of the data center to serve as a hot-air plenum for computer room air-conditioning units. At the same time, it has replaced and upgraded these units—retrofitting existing systems with variable frequency drives. 

The utility also has used floor grommets and blanking panels to minimize cold air loss. And it implemented server virtualization and blades to consolidate systems and build a more efficient computing infrastructure.
Moreover, SRP has standardized on Energy Star-compliant PCs, optimized LCD monitors, and set printers to function in duplex mode and use power-saving features when they’re idle. In the coming months, it will install network copiers, fax machines and scanners to further consolidate devices.
Finally, the utility has addressed e-waste by positioning “techno” trash cans throughout SRP facilities. They’re used to collect and recycle technology-related waste, including batteries, power cords and CDs.

The result? Once SRP implements all these changes, it will trim its carbon emissions by 289 tons per year, slash its annual energy usage by 684,878 kilowatts, and tally more than $53,000 in annual energy savings by making changes to the data center. Overall, the utility figures it will improve its PUE by 17 percent—to 1.79. 

“Today, we have a more complete view into the data center, and we have the information available to make improvements,” Bistany explains.

The complexities of managing a data center and overseeing a green initiative continue to grow. More-powerful servers, denser configurations and more sophisticated needs—including understanding how virtual and physical assets fit together—provide new challenges, along with new opportunities. “The design and layout of the data center are only part of the green equation,” PwC’s Singh notes.

Still among the hottest areas of green IT initiatives are server virtualization and consolidation, which offer substantial savings. In fact, it’s not unusual for organizations to trim energy costs and consumption by 50 percent to 90 percent through a combination of blades and virtualization. That’s because most servers use only about 15 percent of their available computing cycles, while consuming 60 percent to 90 percent of the normal workload power—even when the systems are idle. 

An added benefit of blades and server consolidation in general, according to PlanNet’s Davis, is an ability to reduce the cabling and devices that support the infrastructure. “The best way to be green is simply to not deploy systems and equipment that are underutilized or that aren’t necessary,” he explains.

To be sure, putting all the pieces together and creating a comprehensive strategy for green IT remains the ultimate goal. Ford Motor Company, for example, has embarked on an ambitious program to understand the carbon impact from a wide array of materials, parts, products, modes of transportation, plants and suppliers—as well as IT systems. Ford uses PTC’s InSight product analytics software to view these factors throughout their life cycle, explains Monique Oxender, global manager for supply chain sustainability.

Another company determined to go green is Tesco, a United Kingdom-based supermarket chain with 4,331 stores scattered around the globe. It aims to slash its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2020 and become carbon neutral by mid-century. 

IT will play an integral role in sliding the dial from goal to reality by becoming more efficient and helping the organization introduce technology solutions. “Green IT doesn’t have to involve a big financial investment,” says Mike Yorwerth, group technology and architecture director. “It’s more about attitude and approach.”

PlanNet’s Davis says that organizations such as Ford and Tesco are beginning to understand that a comprehensive green strategy pays enormous dividends and ripples throughout the business. “They can’t ignore the market dynamics and the need for a positive corporate image,” he says.
Moreover, the green concept reaches far beyond simply issuing press releases and trumpeting achievements. 

“It’s about becoming the type of company that appeals to consumers, reducing their costs and future-proofing themselves,” Davis explains.
In fact, some companies have sought out data center locations with renewable energy sources and favorable climate zones. Google’s 75,000-square-foot facility at The Dalles, Ore., for example, relies on hydroelectric energy.  

Last year, Google announced plans to build a wind-powered data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. And it recently entered into a deal to buy wind power for the next 20 years to power its data centers. “Companies are increasingly looking for locations that have a greater opportunity for ambient air exchange,” Davis says. 

Others are turning to water collection systems mounted on roofs and adjacent areas to facilitate evaporative cooling. Some are relying on fluorescent lighting and using motion detectors to switch lights on and off as needed in data centers. Still other organizations are turning to LED lighting to lower costs further. Although lighting pales in cost and consumption to the electricity used by servers and other data center equipment, “a lot of small gains add up to big gains,” PwC’s Singh notes.

In the end, experts say that IT must play a larger role in the greening of the enterprise. By adopting green technology and practices and looking for ways to leverage technology across the enterprise, it’s possible to reduce the environmental footprint while providing green IT solutions that drive further business gains. Initiatives such as data center consolidation, green building techniques, advanced cooling strategies and virtualization help an enterprise tap into cost savings while creating a positive public image. 

“Organizations must put sustainability at the center of their business philosophy,” PlanNet’s Davis concludes. “It’s no longer a fringe issue. Today, it’s part of running an IT department and a business effectively.”

For More Information

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Star Data Center Energy Efficiency Initiatives: Provides comprehensive information about Energy Star systems, as well as benchmarking data and ratings. 

U.S. Department of Energy, Saving Energy in Data Centers: Offers information, case studies, software and more. 

Eco-IT Monitor: Provides a calculator for estimating annual data center energy costs and carbon footprint.

The Green Grid: A comprehensive resource for energy-saving initiatives, with white papers, calculators, guides, and other tools and resources. 

HP Energy & Resource Efficiency Services: Offers resources and information about green initiatives.

IBM Green IT Energy Efficiency Solutions: Includes Webcasts, videos, case studies and resources for green initiatives.  

Uptime Institute: Provides research reports and other resources relating to data center design.