Data center power: the cost reality

U.S. data centers rack up billions in electricity costs annually. Here's how to get power costs under control before the energy crisis hits you

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One key measurement is The Green Grid's PUE, which shows the ratio of the power used by a data center's IT equipment to the power used by its power and cooling systems. (DCiE is the reciprocal of PUE; it shows the amount of power going to IT equipment as a percentage of the total power going into the building.)

Data center operators should aim for a PUE of less than 2 and ideally as close to 1 as possible, experts say. In other words, if you need 1,000 watts of power for your IT equipment, your data center should require no more than 2,000W overall.

Wachovia, the nation's fourth-largest financial institution, has a high-end data center in Birmingham, Ala., that operates at a PUE of 1.6. "We're in the stage of designing new data centers, and we're trying to get the PUE down to 1.4," says Bob Cashner, senior vice president of corporate real estate for Wachovia, in Charlotte, N.C. "Ideally, we would get that number down to 1. We're aiming for that. We're trying to do things that get our PUE lower and lower."

For the Birmingham facility, Wachovia used the most energy-efficient UPS systems, generators and chillers available at the time, Cashner says. "We look at the lowest long-term owning and operating costs. You can spend a few more dollars on Day 1 and do things that will save you money long term."

Wachovia is using virtualization in the data center to reduce the number of servers it needs, replacing 16 individual servers with one virtualized server.

For its next data center, Wachovia is considering using DC power for its IT equipment rather than the traditional AC. This would eliminate the need to deal with the "transformation losses of the UPS systems," Cashner says.

One reason Wachovia is a leader in data center efficiency is that the facilities and IT departments work closely together. "One of the things we've done for years is to get around the table all the subject-matter experts - risk, security, technology and corporate real estate - so we can come up with the best solution that balances all the different factors," Cashner says.

This relationship will be important as data center costs continue to rise. For example, Wachovia's 225,000-square-foot Birmingham building, which opened in 2006, cost $112 million. If it were to be built today, the same building would cost $182 million, Cashner says.

"One of the things Wachovia has done really well is capacity planning," Cashner says. "We have a better idea of what the load growth is in our mission-critical data centers by having a good pipeline of what's coming down the pike in the business units. This lets you have new data centers come online just in time. It takes a good working relationship among the different stakeholders."

Interest in data energy-efficiency is at the "highest levels" within Wachovia, Cashner says. "We have a commitment from our CEO on down that we are going to be a green organization. We have a laser-beam focus on energy efficiency, and we've had that for a long time."

The power risk for CIOs

Companies that don't measure and improve data center efficiency as Wachovia and State Farm have done risk losing their competitive edge, experts say.

Companies that don't improve data center efficiency are "going to go out of business because the cost per transaction will be prohibitively expensive for them compared to the competition," Liebert's Pouchet warns.

Noting that the U.S. Green Building Council soon will be rating data centers, Pouchet predicts companies will be out of favor unless their data centers are rated silver, gold or platinum. "People will start using data center ratings as a metric to get your business. In one to three years, this is going to be something on people's business cards: We run a gold-certified data center."

The data center power and cooling problem is going to get worse before it gets better, experts say.

The Uptime Institute's Brill estimates that the cost of providing power and cooling to data center equipment is now one and a half times the cost of the equipment itself over its lifetime. "I see it growing to three times or four times," he says. "The problem is that the growth is invisible until the data center runs out of capacity."

CIOs who think they have solved the data center power and cooling problem through server virtualization are wrong, experts say. Virtualization is a one-time fix. It can help you delay dealing with data center efficiency, but it won't fix the problem forever.

"Virtualization will get energy costs below the threshold for a while, but it will pop up again," Microsoft's Belady says. "Virtualization buys you time, but after that virtualization won't give you more energy efficiency."

Data center operators who can figure out how to eke out more efficiency from their facilities continually are going to be an asset to their employers, experts say.

"The efficiency methodologies enable you to get more compute capability out of the same kilowatts," APC's Cottuli says. "A business manager may need 5,000 transactions per second. If the data center manager can put in some efficiencies, such as better cooling or virtualization, and give the business manager the extra transactions with the same amount of kilowatts, that's a win-win."

The data center power and cooling problem "fundamentally changes the underlying economics of IT," Brill says. "CIOs who don't adapt to this new math could make profound investment mistakes." 

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