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The Green Data Center: A Report from the Trenches

Eric Woods — February 4, 2011

I recently had the chance to take part in an excellent green data center conference in San Diego. In between trying to soak up as much solar radiation as possible, I had the chance to test the pulse of the green data center movement with a diverse group of data center professionals and specialist consultants.

While the conference presented a biased sample, there were strong signs that green issues and energy efficiency are being taken seriously by many in the data center industry. During the research for our Green Data Center report last year there was a general sense that “green” had become less of a selling point as a result of the economic downturn. However, this conference suggested that both the environmental and the financial importance of energy efficiency are getting wider recognition across many sectors.

It was also notable that many of the issues we highlighted in our report are still high on the agenda. There was considerable discussion, for example, about the basic improvements that can be made to the power and cooling infrastructure, with an emphasis for most data centers on getting the basics right. But there was also an awareness of some of the new opportunities that are presented by the use of more adaptive technologies and sophisticated monitoring and managing tools.

Although many of the delegates were focused on the facilities side of the data center, some of the most interesting discussions I had revolved around how the evolution of IT is changing the data center. Virtualization is already making an impact of course, but there is also a dawning awareness that the growth in cloud computing is going to have a major impact. However, for most of the data center managers I spoke to this remains a theoretical issue at the moment and it’s the data center companies, service providers and consultants who are getting most excited about cloud computing today.

One of the main challenges for data center managers became clear during the opening panel that I moderated and in subsequent presentations and discussions. While the level of innovation in energy efficiency continues to impress, it presents data center managers with a plethora of options and competing claims over best approaches and the benefits of alternative technologies. Do they go for hot or cold aisle containment? Should they choose air or liquid cooling? Is free air cooling safe in their environment? And how do they compare the claims of different UPS providers?

Fortunately, the conference also provided sensible advice on these issues. The most important message for me was simple: It depends on your situation. That may sound like a cop out but in fact it is a vital piece of advice. Take, for example, the two excellent case studies we had on high end academic computing facilities, one existing at the University of San Diego, the other a new high performance computing (HPC) facility planned for the University of California. Both case studies provided some excellent practical advice on the implementation of cooling and power technologies relevant to any data center. But the thing that struck me was the way these data centers not only had to work with the specific requirements of the business but also understood where that gave them an advantage in terms of energy saving. So, for example, the HPC data center manager may have little control on the equipment that they will have to house because that will be determined by the specific needs of research projects (and their grant funding). On the other hand they don’t have to worry about 24×7 uptime as academic projects can usually cope with a certain amount of unavailability, so savings can be made on UPS systems. Other presentations made the same point. A case study on virtualization showed the practical benefits of server consolidation, but also that how far you can go will be determined by organization politics as much as technical issues.

This all helps emphasize the core message about green data centers. There is no single technology or design model that makes a data center green. Nor can you take Microsoft or Google or any of the other mega-data center operators as a model as they are too far removed from the practical issues facing most data center managers. The green data center is instead a direction of travel – it represents a continuous program of improvement that involves a commitment to introducing best practice and efficient technologies wherever possible. But this will always be a priority that has to be weighed against other priorities and the actual technical, environment, and business context. It is getting that balance right which is the real art of the green data center.

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