The incredible shrinking data center

Some IT managers are saying 'smaller is better' when it comes to data-center size.

Tom Gonzales is planning to shrink his company's data center footprint from 45 feet by 15 feet to a mere 12 feet by 12 feet -- and he couldn't be happier. "We're using more space than we need," he says. "We're going to return some of that to the company."

Gonzales, senior network administrator for Denver-based Credit Union of Colorado, says smaller is better when it comes to data center size -- now more than ever given the tight economy. "It's time to do more with less," he says.

Other IT managers are repeating that mantra, helping their companies cope with hard times by shrinking their data center's physical footprint to become smaller and more compact. IT managers have gotten to these more productive footprints by using virtualization, increasingly dense and multifunction hardware, alternative energy sources and modular design techniques. For their part, the savings accrue from lower energy bills, reduced property costs and less costly site and technology maintenance.

At the credit union, for example, server virtualization helped lower data center space requirements while making IT leaner and more efficient. "We used to have 40 boxes, now we're down to just a couple and a lot of virtualization. We have 12 racks right now, and we're going to consolidate that down to just four," Gonzales says.

The steady consolidation of servers and related resources over the past few years has left the credit union's old data center with plenty of excess room. "We've been trying to talk them into giving us a foosball table or a pool table in there because there's more than enough empty floor space," he jokes.

Actually, the freed-up space will be put to good use by the 80,000-member credit union. "We're in downtown Denver in our own building, but real estate here is expensive," Gonzales says. "We're trying to give some of our space to departments that [provide] member-facing services."

Yet data center size shouldn't be the sole focus of cost-savings attempts, warns Steve Sams, vice president of site and facilities services for IBM Global Technology Services in Armonk, N.Y. "The physical footprint is not where the cost of the data center is," he says. "The physical footprint typically represents, in traditional data center builds, 7 to 10 percent of the cost."

If space-conscious managers focus on systems and the accompanying support infrastructure, a footprint reduction will be the logical outcome, Sams says. About 60% of a data center's cost is from the power and cooling infrastructure -- the air conditioning systems, the chillers, the generators, the uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), the power distribution units and so on, he says.

For the credit union, shrinking the data center cut out about 33 power ports and two circuits, Gonzales says. However, he adds, the organization doesn't have power measurement tools, so he can't specify power savings in dollars.

IT managers also need to pay attention to ongoing hardware density advancements, Sams adds. Using denser hardware, IT managers can shrink facility footprints and costs while keeping pace with rising workload demands. "Technology is getting a lot smaller, [which] means you can jam a lot more of it into a smaller space," he says. "A data center may find itself doing three times the computing for two times the energy."

Down under

Phil County, director of IT services at Victoria University, in Melbourne, Australia, is another manager looking to benefit from a compact data center. County is overseeing the construction of a data center complex that will be large enough to meet the university's extensive computing and network needs yet small enough to generate savings in hardware, energy usage, real estate and other areas.

"Our objective is to have the data center as small as possible," he says. "Rather than having one of those big football field-sized data centers that used to be around in the old days -- and still are in many places -- we're creating a new kind of data center."

Victoria University operates 11 campuses and other sites in the greater Melbourne area, providing education to more than 45,000 students. The university views the new data center complex, located at two separate sites (in the towns of Sunshine and Footscray), as critical to supplying educational services to all students, as well as supporting administrative functions. "We wanted to ensure that we plan for future growth, so we acquired a design and solution that could meet our data center needs for at least the next 10 years -- including increased power, cooling, space and floor load capacity," County says.

Five ways to shrink a data center

Advice from users and analysts.

1. Adopt virtualization. With virtualization, data centers can make more efficient use of their physical servers, reducing the hardware needed.

2. Use space-saving hardware. When comparing servers, storage devices and other physical assets, check out their form factors and consider how the products will fit into your data center. If starting from scratch, consider basing your data center on a scalable, modular design.

3. Plan around integrated technologies. Look for devices that can handle two or more jobs. Use a combination firewall/router, for example, rather than standalone appliances.

4. Keep it simple. Strive for fewer cables and fixtures, and consolidate any other gear you can.

5. Don't leave extra gear lying around. Sell, give away or recycle obsolete, redundant and other types of unneeded hardware. If you think you might need to use a certain item at some future date, perhaps as an emergency substitute, place the equipment in an easily accessible storage area where it won't consume prime data center space.

Although operating dual sites, the university is creating a single logical data center that offers redundancy and flexibility benefits. The Sunshine facility will encompass 325 square feet while the Footscray site's footprint will cover 650 square feet.

Virtualization, high-density racking and a modular design will enable the university to minimize energy demands. The data center also will use in-row cooling, targeted at the heat load source, combined with free cooling that leverages Melbourne's chilly winter climate.

Traditional cooling systems rely on electricity to drive compressors to reject heat and produce cold air, County says. The Victoria University cooling system has that capability, but also will use ambient air temperatures to reject heat and produce cooled air within certain temperature ranges.

"At 15 C this process begins to work, providing free cooling and at below 5 C the ambient air temperature does all of the work of the compressors, thus saving clients the use of the compressors to provide the cold air," County says. "The system is set up to ensure that these processes work without requiring human intervention -- so whenever the ambient temperature reaches the threshold, the system kicks in."

The university also will use small UPS modules to maximize the amount of usable power as well as optimize efficiency. "We hope to save money on our energy consumption, our electricity," County says. The data center is expect to use 45 percent less power than a conventional design, potentially saving more than 300,000 kilowatts per year of energy.

As the new data center takes shape, it's bringing together servers and other equipment previously scattered across Melbourne in various university buildings. "We've already centralized over 350 machines and reduced the number of boxes, to about 240," County says.

Viva virtualization

Virtualization is a must-have for reducing data center size and accompanying costs, agrees Peter Castaldi, co-founder and principal of Kovarus Technology Solutions, a South San Francisco-based company that specializes in data center design. "If you take 100 servers and reduce them down to 10, that's 90 servers that you no longer have to pay an annual support fee on -- servers you no longer have to pay electricity for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, regardless of whether they're 10 percent or 100 percent utilized," he says.

Environmental costs also will collapse, he notes. "That's 90 servers you no longer need to pump cold air into to keep them from burning up," Castaldi says. On the other hand, managers shouldn't assume a direct 90% energy cost reduction, since the remaining 10 servers could very well have larger workloads, he adds.

Virtualization also leads to more productive and better performing data centers, Castaldi says. "It changes a lot of processes and best practices. It changes the way you use your hardware, your storage, your networking -- it changes the way you do a lot of things," he says.

Virtualization also forces managers to pay more attention to the way they configure and run systems. But the results more than justify the extra effort, says Castaldi, pointing to lower capital expenditures, operational savings, improved disaster recoverability and reduced time and lower management costs as the fundamental benefits that data center downsizers can expect to experience. "And it's all a direct cost savings," he notes.

While virtualizing servers is perhaps the best method of lowering hardware overhead, managers intent on slashing data center size also need to look for other technologies to virtualize. "Think [beyond] server virtualization -- it's about virtualizing your entire data center," Castaldi says. "There's storage virtualization, desktop virtualization and virtual lab automation." All of these things can be brought into play to conserve space and resources, he adds.

Mercy's mission

David Shaw, executive director of data center services for Sister Mercy Health, also is managing a data center consolidation project. In the past, Mercy, which operates 18 hospitals and scores of other health facilities across seven Midwestern and Southern states, has juggled as many as seven data centers. The arrangement wasted space and resources and was difficult to manage, Shaw says.

The organization is now working on a compact new facility that's designed from scratch to meet Mercy's precise needs in workflow, configuration, energy use and other critical areas. But before construction could get underway, Mercy needed to find a site.

"We wanted it to be away from any major fault lines, away from tornado paths. We also needed to make sure there was accessibility to suppliers in terms of the high-speed connections into the sites," says Shaw, noting that Mercy selected a location in Washington, Mo., close to its St. Louis headquarters.

In developing the data center, Shaw's goal was to create a virtualized facility that's as compact as possible, given the health care provider's large business- and medical-related IT workloads. The data center raised floor takes up 9,500 square feet, Shaw explains. Like Victory University's County, Shaw specified a scalable modular design that would allow the data center to shrink or expand as the need arises. "We haven't constrained ourselves in power and cooling, so we can keep bolting on as we move forward," says Shaw, adding that the facility will open next year.

Words of advice

The biggest challenge in data center downsizing is planning, Gonzales says. "You really have to be careful in designing everything so that every last piece fits," he says. "You certainly don't have space to waste."

While some observers might expect IT managers -- and their staff -- to rebel against the notion of being forced to creating a shrunken professional domain, Gonzales says that a smaller data center doesn't reflect on his skills as an administrator or the work his team performs. "We're judged on how well we do our job, not on how much area we consume," he says. Show agrees. "It's a concept I've never even thought about," he says.

Although data center downsizing can exert a positive effect by lowering hardware, energy, real estate, maintenance and other costs, Castaldi notes that enterprises need to be realistic in their expectations. Some data center costs are isolated from the facility's size. Downsizing isn't likely, for instance, to have much of an impact on staff size.

"We don't necessarily see companies reducing IT staffing levels," Castaldi says. "Instead, their IT staff can work more intelligently, and [managers] can get more bang for their buck out of them."

Many administrators spend a lot of time doing repetitive tasks, such as backups and writing reports, that new data center technology can automate, eliminate or perform more quickly, Castaldi says. Among the many cost areas that are unlikely to be affected by data center size are software applications and utilities, and network services including Web hosting and security.

Rare would be an enterprise that has shrunk its data center but hasn't reaped multiple positive results, particularly when virtualization is part of the plan. "With a reduction of physical servers, you can't expect the heat not to go down, your power consumption not to fall and to not reduce your overhead costs," Gonzales says. "In all of those respects and more, small is good."

John Edwards is a technology writer in the Phoenix area. He can be reached at

This story, "The incredible shrinking data center" was originally published by Computerworld.

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