What Happens in Copenhagen and Vegas Stays Where?

Julius Neudorfer
While the world watches to see what happens next at the Copenhagen Climate Conference, scheduled to be held Dec. 6-16, we in the data center world need to keep our servers powered and cool 24x7. We may want to 'go green' as soon as possible, but for today, our primary goal is the keep our so-called 'mission critical' loads running, first and foremost.

Are data centers suddenly becoming the poster child of the 'global warming/carbon footprint' syndrome, as we continue operating our mega data centers while presumably feeling guilty?

While the Copenhagen Summit deals with the large-scale issues of climate change, carbon footprint and global warming, I find it interesting that Gartner's 28th Annual Data Center Conference is being held in Las Vegas this week, a city that exemplifies the meaning of the word 'excess." Setting aside any moral issues ('What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas'), it is a city that is operated on almost limitless, low-cost power.  

How else could any business afford to see how many more megawatts it can burn to 'outshine' neighboring casinos? And while Google and other large-scale operators of data centers all try to find locations that offer natural climatic advantages to improve the efficiency of their data centers (such as via the use of economizers to lower the amount of energy used by mechanical cooling), some operators are building data centers in the nearby desert, where there is almost no possibility to use 'free cooling."

But as I mentioned previously, Las Vegas (and most of Nevada) has one of the lowest energy costs, since the Hoover Dam provides a significant percentage of the electrical power. Moreover, it looks like Nevada is also going to be one of the big solar energy generating states, so perhaps the 'greenest' data centers will be in one of the hottest states after all, especially if the EPA's EUE 'Source Energy' becomes the new metric for the coming decade.

Without question, our data centers have grown to a size and scale where their power use has begun to tax the power infrastructure. Directly or indirectly, this does increase the 'carbon footprint."  For every kilowatt or megawatt the data center itself uses directly, on average it causes a three-fold increase in the amount of raw hydrocarbon-type fuel (coal, natural gas, etc.) being consumed at the typical power plant (even nuclear plants produce twice as much waste heat that is released into the environment for every MW delivered). Of course, this is true for almost any use of electricity, not just data centers. But here at 'The Hot Aisle,' we concentrate on the data center, not the aluminum smelting industry. (Perhaps I should rename this blog 'The Cold Aisle' in an effort to be politically correct and pay symbolic homage to the issue of global warming.)

However, all that being said, we can all make some effort (or at least more than a symbolic gesture) toward improving the energy usage and efficiency in our data centers. 

So here is my no cost - low cost reminder of recommendations that can be done today, with little to no impact on the operations of the IT equipment:

  • Raise the temperature in the data center to 75� F, or more, slowly!! (ASHRAE 9.9 now allows up to 80� F at the intake of the IT equipment, aka the 'cold aisle')
  • Broaden the humidity set-points on the CRACs to 30-70 percent instead of 40-55 percent.
  • Consider disabling the humidification systems on some of the CRACs so that they do not battle each other.
  • Use air containment for all cable openings in the raised floor (i.e., brush collars).
  • Use blanking panels in every unused space in the rack to prevent hot air recirculation within the cabinet.
  • Move the highest heat-producing equipment near the bottom of the rack and use blanking panels to fill the top of the rack. This will prevent air recirculation over the top of the cabinet.
  • Consider zoning the data center into different power-density areas, to match the cooling systems with the projected heat load. Example: Use contained cooling (hot or cold aisle, depending on your 'religious' beliefs) for the higher-density loads and traditional raised-floor perimeter CRACs for lower-power-density racks/areas.

Ultimately, the best way to lower the total energy in a data center is to lower the IT load.  Virtualization seems to be the current mantra, and it clearly does lower energy use by consolidating equipment. However, that just means that we now have more room and power to run even more applications and generate and store even more data. 

While a mundane and unpopular task, take an actual inventory of every IT device, rack by rack. You will find that there are many forgotten orphans -- those old servers, switches routers and, yes, especially those old 1200 baud modems that no one is using anymore (except perhaps ET to 'phone home'). Once they are positively identified as unused (or no one wants to admit ownership), turn them off. However, I do suggest that you wait a few days or a week or two before removing them, just in case someone suddenly realizes that it was actually still in use because the branch office in Timbuktu only has limited dial-up service and downloads sales data only once a week. Then permanently decommission the equipment.

Of course, in order to know if your actions are improving your data center's efficiency, you need to be able to measure the energy. Please consider installing even a basic type of energy-monitoring system, even if it only measures the total power to the data center (while not a perfect measurement, your UPS should effectively provide you with your IT load). Then make your changes and record the (hopefully) improved energy-efficiency results.

So as we all plan for 2010, walk the aisles of your data center (large or small) and think how you can improve energy efficiency. You may also save some operating expenses and perhaps even save your own job or that of a co-worker from being cut, thanks to your organization's drive to improve economic operating efficiency.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 9, 2009 5:12 PM Kevin Heslin Kevin Heslin  says:
Julius, you raise some interesting points about the cost and allocation of resources. Data centers may become more energy efficient yet still require more energy and resources. After all, who determines what's a useful and worthwhile use of energy and computing power? Social media and other uses of computing resources only exist because someone can afford to pay for them, sort of like casinos in the desert. This situation mirrors China's take on emissions. As you probably know, they have promised to increase their overall energy intensity, which means their energy use and carbon emissions will both continue to grow dramatically. Poorer, but growing, nations have a point when they decline to limit their emissions at current levels, which are far lower than the emissions of richer nations. But, hey, this disconnect may be part of the human condition. After all, has the nation not spent a week engrossed in Tiger Woods "affairs?" Is that a good use of resources? But then why does a golfer make tens of millions of dollars in the first place? Reply

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