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Data Center Energy Beast: Tamers Needed

By Robert Lemos, CIO
March 31, 2009 02:40 PM ET

CIO - Data centers stand on the front lines of the battle to tame the energy consumption of information technology.

Data centers account for an estimated 1.5% of the current energy consumption in the United States, costing IT departments more than $4.5 billion annually, according to a report released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2007, the latest data available. Without efficiency gains, the EPA expects the total consumption due to data centers to double by 2011.

Slideshow: Data centers in a box

"For years, data center management was about keeping systems running," says David Cappuccio, managing vice president for infrastructure research at business intelligence firm Gartner. "It was about hitting the uptime goals. They didn't care how well energy consumption stacked up relative to processing power."

High oil prices and the coming carbon caps have changed that perspective. (For more details, see CIO.com's recent article on five key energy trends driving your data center.) Companies that once use to build big with an eye towards growing into their data centers, now build smaller, densely-packed buildings to maximize energy efficiency.

Yet, a significant problem is that idle hardware continues to consume significant power. Most servers still require two-thirds of their peak power consumption when sitting idle. To further tame the energy consumption requires more detailed management of the various systems in the data center, Cappuccio says.

"Companies are going to ask, what is our efficiency compared to our competitors?" he says. "And then the next question is, how we are going to improve that? So they are going to have to monitor their energy output at a much more specific level then ever before."

New Focus on Improving Both Virtualization and Cooling

Using power management systems to turn off unused systems is key to improving efficiency, according to the EPA report. Adding the capability to concentrate processes on fewer systems, so that more idle systems can be turned off is a "state-of-the-art" recommendation in the report. Energy management systems, especially paired with virtualization, can make data centers much more efficient, says John Steigerwald, director of product management for IBM's performance management group.

"Management plays a key part," Steigerwald says. "We see increasing demand among our customers to monitor and manage their energy usage."

Of course, for data centers, the power consumed by servers, routers and other information technology is only half the energy equation. The energy required to cool servers increases power consumption by at least half, says Steve Yellen, vice president of marketing for Aperture Technologies, a data-center management software firm.

"You really can't run IT from a business point of view focusing on cost and services without looking at power, physical connections, and cooling," he says.

With companies more focused on energy efficiency and cost, Yellen argues that they will increasingly treat their IT departments as a separate, internal, business-one that bills for what some people call the " private cloud."

"We think it is going to turn into this economic view about the equipment where IT will be selling processing and storage as a service," Yellen says. "Companies will take a service-oriented view of what is happening in the data center, and a holistic view of the equipment."

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