Energy Management Revamps the Data Center

By Tony Kontzer  |  Posted 2013-01-30
energy-efficient data centers

By Tony Kontzer

There was a time when improving a company's energy efficiency was similar to conserving energy at home: Remember to turn off the lights, close heating vents in unused rooms and shut down computers at the end of the day.

No more. Today, it's not enough to change human behavior. Instead, companies are reaping the benefits of a raft of technologies that are helping them reduce their growing carbon footprints. They're combating the effects of ever-expanding data centers. They're tapping energy-management software to automate and audit usage. And they're turning to a combination of energy-usage data and sensors to create better integrated and more intelligent facilities.

Like many companies have done in recent years, Acorda Therapeutics unwittingly stumbled upon the energy-efficiency impact of server virtualization, and that discovery has opened the flood gates.

About four years ago, Acorda, a $210 million-per-year maker of drugs to treat nervous disorders such as multiple sclerosis, found itself outgrowing its data center. With a need for more servers in its crowded data center, the company invested $100,000 in virtual servers running on technology from VMware.

In addition to the expected benefits—including avoiding spending an additional $1.5 million on more physical servers—virtualization affected the company's power use in several other way. For instance, adding virtual machines to a physical host resulted in barely a blip in power requirements.

Acorda also avoided having to deploy several times as many servers as it had previously. Such an increase in servers would have resulted in a commensurate rise in energy usage. And when the company moved to a new building last year, it was able to significantly shrink the size of its data center, translating to lower cooling costs.

"It was a really good side effect," says Josh Bauer, senior manager of network operations, of the unexpected benefits of virtualization. "We saw the energy efficiency gains, and we've tried to pump that up."

Along those lines, the revelations led Acorda to focus on further boosting the energy efficiency of its new facility. It installed motion sensors that shut off lights after five minutes if no movement is detected, and it invested in a more intelligent cooling system that automatically changes settings as conditions change. "When it came to asking for a slightly more expensive cooling system, the business didn't hesitate," said Bauer.

This progress had another unexpected impact: The company was named one of the best places to work in New York (it's based in Ardsley), in part because of its budding efforts to be a greener business.

And Bauer says the effort is ongoing. Acorda is planning to replace all its host servers and take advantage of a VMware feature that helps improve power efficiency by moving virtual servers from one cluster to another, thereby reducing the number of clusters that require power at any given time. It's also preparing to test virtualized desktops, which will greatly reduce the power required to run workstations and laptops.

While Acorda's progress is a good start, energy-efficiency experts suggest that companies get more out in front of the issue and take a strategic approach to energy management.

Chris Smith, global practice leader of energy efficiency and operations productivity for DuPont Sustainable Solutions, a consulting arm of the industrial giant, says the energy-efficiency efforts of industrial firms he engages with run the gamut from the unsophisticated (using Excel spreadsheets to track consumption) to the cutting-edge (integrating energy-consumption software and IT systems to collect data and use it to manage usage).

Meanwhile, he says that companies need to do a better job of using technology to bring together their various energy stakeholders—those overseeing sustainability, engineers managing consumption, energy contract buyers and the like.

"The technology component is a critical piece of the broader solution to reduce energy consumption," says Smith. "And it's going to be even more important in the future."

Reflecting the big data craze sweeping the IT world, Roger Schmidt, an IBM fellow and chief engineer of data center energy efficiency, says that better data on consumption patterns is the key to getting corporate boardrooms to rally around the energy-efficiency effort.

"If you don't have the data, you don't know what to improve," says Schmidt. "You don't know what's most inefficient in your system. Until you know that, you can't really get started."

Designing From the Ground Up

EllisDon, a $3 billion-a-year construction firm in Mississauga, Ontario, has begun to address that for its clients. In order to thrive in a competitive market, the company has begun designing buildings from the ground up with energy efficiency in mind. Perhaps the most important step it's taken has been to make sure all the components of a facility are tied together.

"Everything in our buildings has been proprietary, so getting information has been tough," says Stephen Foster, director of information and communications systems. "The various elements couldn't talk to each other. Building automation couldn't talk to security, which couldn't talk to the lights, which couldn't talk to the HVAC."

EllisDon has begun putting nonproprietary systems throughout its new buildings. This enables the company to integrate every part of a facility that requires power so that the occupant automatically benefits from better energy-consumption practices.

"The technology we're putting into buildings has exposed data," says Foster. "It's allowed us to have better information and benchmarks to make better management decisions."

For instance, one of EllisDon's clients is a community college that had been booking media rooms by matching the size of the room with the expected number of people. But that scenario is handled much differently in the school's newest building, in which the HVAC system is linked into the room-booking system. That way, rooms are automatically booked to minimize the number of air handlers that are running, resulting in much more efficient energy consumption, says Foster.

Meanwhile, when EllisDon built a new building for a local hospital, it was charged with tackling one of the hospital's biggest energy management problems, namely that numerous employees didn't know how to run the blinds, lights and air conditioning in any of the meeting rooms.

EllisDon configured the building with meeting rooms that enable employees to swipe a personalized smart card that automatically adjusts all the settings. In other words, a meeting organizer who swipes his card gets lighting and temperature that matches his preferences, and any equipment he's requested automatically powers up.

Additionally, the meeting rooms are equipped with sensors that, after detecting no motion for a predetermined period of time, automatically reset the HVAC and window blinds, shut off any lights and equipment, and lock the door.

For now, EllisDon's own less-sophisticated offices cast it as the classic cobbler's child that has no shoes, but Foster says the company plans to build a new headquarters that will allow it to take advantage of its new energy-efficient approach to design. Years from now, he hopes he can say the same for EllisDon's other offices around the world.

IBM's Schmidt says there's no reason every company can't follow in EllisDon's footsteps. They just need to avail themselves of the many tools that can help them find opportunities to improve energy efficiency.

"A lot of the technologies are out there," says Schmidt. "It's about educating people on how to use and implement them."