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Feature Article

August 01, 2011

How Dirty Is Your Data Center?

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of infoTECH Spotlight.

For many businesses, it’s time to clean up their green IT plans and ramp up data center efficiencies.

For businesses “greening” their data centers these days, it means much more than improving their corporate reputation or doing good for the environment – for senior-level executives and IT leaders, it’s all about adding green to the bottom line.

As companies shift from paper-based data to digital information, new data centers are being designed to be efficient in terms of power utilization, space allocation and capital expenditures. Senior-level executives are especially paying attention to energy consumption in data centers, and data center managers are taking a hard look at energy efficiency in both design and execution. 

An Environmental Protection Agency report submitted to Congress back in 2007 estimated energy costs of data centers would balloon to $7.4 billion by 2011, and detailed a dramatic increase in data center power consumption. With the massive growth of data centers today, companies are becoming savvier about their green IT initiatives, which is any policy or process designed to sustain natural capital rather than deplete it.

If your company is without a renewable energy strategy today, you could be in for scrutiny not only from environmental groups, but your business partners and consumers who care more than you may realize. Take a look at Facebook (News - Alert) as an example of a data Goliath, with Greenpeace poking holes in its sustainability efforts. The social networking data center, which is estimated to use about 38 percent less electricity than a standard data center of comparable size, reportedly cost $188 million to build. Greenpeace has called for Facebook to amp up its energy efficiency measures.

“Across the board, IT companies so far have failed to commit to clean energy in the same way they are embracing energy efficiency, which is holding the sector back from being truly green,” according to the May 2011 Greenpeace report, “How Dirty Is Your Data?”

There is no question data centers are driving rapid expense growth for many technology-intensive businesses. But companies can – and should – be doing more to clean up their data centers, for reasons that go far beyond social responsibility and societal pressures.

But before you can find the right solutions for your IT department, it’s important to consider some of the latest data center figures.

In 2003, a typical data center cost $150 million to build. Today, a similar sized data center costs several times that amount, according to the Green Grid, a global consortium of companies, government agencies and educational institutions dedicated to resource efficiency in data centers and business computing ecosystems.

“Data centers have fundamentally changed the way we work, communicate and live in the global economy,” says Rob Bernard, a Microsoft (News - Alert) representative and board member of the Green Grid. “Organizations of all sizes have the opportunity to transform data centers from an operational burden to a source of economic prosperity and ecologic sustainability.”

Key findings from Uptime Institute’s inaugural data center industry survey this year revealed that 36 percent of data center facilities would run out of space, power or cooling by 2012. Moreover, less than 20 percent of IT departments actually pay the data center power bill, a financial configuration that makes it far more difficult to drive data center energy efficiency in companies. 

To put this into real-life context, Arbor Networks is witnessing more data center consolidation, energy efficiency and cloud services adoption, according to Rakesh Shah, director, product and strategy marketing. Cloud services, in particular, are spurring an awakening for some CIOs to implement other efficiency measures.

“Besides moving to fewer and bigger data centers, the line between private and Internet services is definitely blurring as more internal services such as company e-mail, CRM, and HR systems are being accessed through the public Internet,” Shah says. “The adoption of blade-server technology and virtualization are helping with energy efficiency. Lastly, cloud adoption is being spurred by enterprises that are spending more on cloud-based services in general.”

According to Uptime Institute’s survey, 74 percent of companies deployed or were considering some form of cloud computing, primarily private cloud.

“Data centers are attracting the attention of more CEOs and CFOs, not just for their energy use, but also because of the cost of facilities and the digital infrastructure – the entire system by which companies satisfy their computing needs,” says Martin McCarthy, executive chairman of Uptime Institute and CEO of The 451 Group (News - Alert). Digital infrastructure includes the data centers, software, IT hardware and internal/external services.

Emerging trends in data center design mean that new data centers will be able to provide a 300 percent growth in capacity in 60 percent less space than existing data centers, according to IT research firm Gartner (News - Alert), Inc. Consolidating servers reduces power consumption, cuts cooling requirements and reduces hardware and support costs.

In an interview with Jose Iglesias, Symantec’s (News - Alert) vice president of education services at Symantec, Iglesias told InfoTech Spotlight green IT is less of a trend today and more of a strategy toward a climate-conscious business model.

Putting policy to practice three years ago, Symantec’s then-president and CEO, John Thompson, established a goal to reduce Symantec’s global carbon emissions (measured in pounds per square foot of real estate) by 15 percent from the baseline measurement in FY2008 through FY 2012.

“Our CEO made a commitment to reduce our carbon footprint by 15 percent by 2012; that was a huge reduction and we only have three levers to place that: IT, buildings and people. We put in place a program that’s called ‘eating our own cooking’ in IT. It allows an organization to install the Symantec product and give feedback to our engineering department and discover problems before we ship products out to our customers,” explains Iglesias.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate $3 million a year in energy cost savings just by using our own product,” adds Iglesias. “That doesn’t include the capital that we were able to save by not having to buy all the hardware that we would have had to buy.”

In addition to the benefits realized within the IT data center environment, Symantec also realized significant savings by stemming energy use at the IT endpoint. By deploying an automated power management profile that places company laptops and desktops in standby mode after four hours of inactivity, the company forecasts annual savings of $800,000 and more than 6 million kWh of energy per year.

The EPA contends that even with existing IT equipment, implementing best energy-management practices in existing data centers and consolidating applications from many servers to one server could reduce current data center energy usage by around 20 percent.

Data center administrators can take several steps to reduce costs in their IT facilities, including taking a look at the hardware being used to determine which systems are old or no longer useful, according to Gartner. Businesses have reported that such hardware rationalization has lead to 5 to 20 percent reductions in the number of servers being used.

Data Centers and Cloud Computing

There are many reasons why green IT should be important to the C-level executive, especially the CIO and the CEO, says Iglesias – some reasons more obvious than others.

According to the Symantec 2009 Green IT survey, the average enterprise pays between $21 million to $27 million a year for data center electricity. Data center energy costs are now covered in the CIO’s budget, either directly or through cross-charges, for 83 percent of enterprises.

“The way that we define green IT as looking at the whole lifecycle of IT from the equipment that is being procured to the disposal of the equipment – through the whole lifecycle, reducing the carbon footprint and energy consumption of all that resides in the data center,” Iglesias says.

The transition from keeping workload on premise and moving it to the cloud are key elements of any green IT discussion, he explains.

“One of the main reasons why green IT is top of mind now, as it has been for the last handful of years, is because as energy costs keep increasing, the cost of data centers is a going to be larger percentage [of costs] for IT,” he says. “When we went into the economic downturn, everyone starting looking at the amount of energy it took to operate their data centers.”

Cloud computing has emerged as one of the more disruptive technologies; few would argue the point, as it is taking our work, finances and other key data and pushing it into another sphere. But with this disruption comes another kind of environmental impact CIOs need to also consider.

“The cloud is IT’s biggest innovation and disruption. Cloud computing is converting our work, finances, health and relationships into invisible data, centralized in out-of-the-way storage facilities or data centers,” Greenpeace’s data report says, asking IT leaders this pointed question: “As cloud technology disrupts our lives in many positive ways, are the companies that are changing everything failing to address their own growing environmental footprint?

As cloud computing continues to become adopted more readily, cost optimization is coming into greater focus. Data centers house the explosion of virtual information, the Greenpeace report says, which currently consumes 1.5-2 percent of all global electricity, growing at an astounding rate of 12 percent a year.

Balancing Cost with Energy

With cost optimization ranking among the CIO’s greatest challenge in planning for future data center needs, the balancing act becomes that more fragile.

“Cost optimization will be critical as the greater demand for services will require higher scale and connectivity.  For data center operators, their CIOs must balance exponentially increase demand for data and services with non-exponentially increasing budgets,” says Arbor’s Shah. “Enterprise CIOs will be aggressively evaluating cloud-based services over the next few years as the percentage of IT spending increases in the cloud, and they should be prepared to get the most out of cloud-based services.”

In terms of efficiency and green IT, companies can achieve cost-savings while meeting their present and future needs, says Arbor’s Shah. In addition to the benefits of a green data center, Shah advises operators also seriously consider cyberattacks and the persuasion to potentially overbuild capacity.

“Energy efficiency and green IT are intertwined with cost savings. With the adoption of blade-server technologies, the increased usage of x86 virtualization and the move to more shared cloud resources, cloud operators can both reduce costs and be more green,” explains Shah. “Cyber attacks including DDoS and other threats against availability should also be considered. Rather than overbuilding capacity to absorb attacks, operators should detect and stop attacks before they waste valuable resources.”

Green is a Long-Term Strategy

“Greening” the data center is by no means a quick fix; it requires a long-term strategy that considers today’s needs in tandem with future growth, nor will green IT solutions have immediate impact or justification.

“You can’t just make a change this month and not do it for the rest of the year,” adds Symantec’s Iglesias. “It’s something that needs to have a life of its own. Every IT organization has to have a green IT program in place.”

Chris Gladwin, founder and CEO of data storage provider Cleversafe, cites figures from the International Data Corporation, which predicts massive growth in digital data over the next eight years.

“According to IDC, the total amount of stored digital data is growing 44 times from 2008 to 2020. These data growth rates are approaching the Exabyte range and CIOs are looking for solutions that can securely store and distribute more data while still providing the flexibility their company needs to support organization growth in other ways,” says Gladwin. “Finding a secure and reliable solution that can scale to this rapid growth has become the CIO’s greatest challenge in planning for their future data center needs.”

As discussed earlier, one of the main data center trends the industry is experiencing today is leveraging the cloud for applications and infrastructure.

“The cloud promises a fundamental shift in how IT is delivered. Underlying the shift toward the cloud are shared resources for application servers, networks and storage. Another common theme we’re seeing is the need to support ‘Big Data,’ explains Gladwin. “We’re seeing exabyte systems today and it won’t be long before we’ll be talking about Yottabytes. In order to support that kind of growth, you need storage solutions that can scale and perform to accommodate.”   

Green Data Security

When looking for a secure and reliable cloud storage system, in addition to efficiency, companies need to consider its confidentiality, integrity and availability, advises Gladwin, who is a proponent of dispersed storage.

“We’ve found that traditional approaches for data protection, like RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) and replication, are only designed for storing smaller amounts of data since they rely on two-dimensional parity and doesn’t scale to large data. As data set sizes increase, data protection decreases which results in data loss forever and large cost-penalties,” he says. “Due to these issues, object-based storage has emerged as the standard for cloud storage, particularly in cases involving big data. Dispersed object storage is 100 million times more reliable than RAID, improves the efficiency of managing assets and provides limitless scale all while still offering security at the highest level.”Of primary importance when storing, securing and distributing more data in the cloud, is to ensure that there’s peace of mind knowing that digital content is protected at the highest levels, but still provides the flexibility to support and help companies and service providers to grow in other ways, he adds.

“Dispersed object-based storage will save organizations resources while assuring their data is incorruptible, making it the most practical and secure business decision available for cloud storage,” says Gladwin.

Implementing a sustainable cloud platform, like object-based storage, Gladwin explains, which has the ability to scale to data growth, will eliminate the need for constant hardware add-ons, physical space loss and additional costly resources.

“Another way companies can achieve a greener platform while still meeting their storage needs is to implement a systems that uses industry standard hardware, energy efficient components and high density drives. Running this type of storage-efficient hardware with standard data center power will result in less energy and space waste while also reducing cost of ownership,” he adds.

Green IT: More Than Just Talk

If you visit the websites of almost any company in any industry, green IT and “sustainability” are usually part of the marketing package. But today that philosophy has to be more than an image or PR tactic; green IT and achieving greater efficiencies in data centers has to be strategic to a company’s long-term success.

“What you’ll find is either on their home landing page or as part of their messaging and branding, have something about being a responsible company in relation to sustainability,” says Symantec’s Iglesias. “That external messaging today, for them to be able to display that prominently, they need to substantiate that.”

For Symantec, the company walks the walk when it comes to green IT and green data centers.

“Every investment that we make we typically do an ROI on it. We’re up to 15 of our major buildings getting them LEED certified with the LEED Gold rating. We get the savings in other ways, with less electricity, less water. There’s a payback there,” Iglesias says.

Organizations that have utilized the Symantec IT Energy ROI Tool have realized savings of 20 percent or more from their data center energy bill, resulting in $4 million or more of annual cost reduction, while maintaining or enhancing IT capacity, capability, and

performance. At the same time, organizations have been able to quantify carbon reductions and qualify for utility provider rebate.

As Iglesias sums it up: “When you think of green IT, think of green as the color of money.”

Industry analysts say increasing productivity in data centers is at the top of most IT agendas today.

“Organizations are starting to take a serious look at consumption ratios of compute power to energy consumed and then compare them against estimated productivity of applications and the equipment to deliver that application,” says Dave Cappuccio, chief of infrastructure research at Gartner.

Couple this with the realization that most IT assets are underutilized, he adds.

“For example, x86 servers are running at 12 percent utilization, racks are populated to 50 to 60 percent capacity, floor space is ‘spread out’ to disperse the heat load – it becomes clear that an efficiently designed and implemented data center can yield significant improvements.”

What Dirty Data Costs

Data centers are a major consumer of IT-related energy. Inefficiency can have a significant negative effect on global energy consumption. Consider these facts:

• Data center electricity consumption is almost 0.5 percent of world production

• An average data center consumes energy equivalent to 25,000 households

• Worldwide energy consumption of data centers doubled between 2000 and 2006

• Near-term incremental U.S. demand for data center energy may require construction of three new power plants per year

• 90 percent of companies running large data centers need to build more power and cooling in the next 30 months

Source: Uptime Institute


Erin Harrison is Executive Editor, Strategic Initiatives, for TMC, where she oversees the company's strategic editorial initiatives, including the launch of several new print and online initiatives. She plays an active role in the print publications and TMCnet, covering IP communications, information technology and other related topics. To read more of Erin's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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