High energy costs, concerns about power availability and pressure from company stakeholders are causing growing numbers of IT managers to consider green strategies for their data centers.

Although U.S. energy use is increasing in absolute terms, it is growing more slowly than the economy. That’s mostly because much of the economy’s growth is in service industries, and service industries consume less energy than manufacturing industries.

Even though IT has been key in building the service economy, energy consumption in IT centers is beginning to draw greater scrutiny. In a report to Congress in August 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that in 2006, the nation’s data centers and servers consumed about 61 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s roughly what it takes to power 5.8 million households, and double the amount the centers used in 2000. By 2011, EPA says, IT energy consumption could reach 100 billion kilowatt hours, and peak demand would require construction of 10 additional power plants. The cost of 100 billion kilowatt hours, incidentally, is around $7.4 billion.

In a some cases, data centers already have reached the point where more electricity just isn’t available, says Richard De Lotto, principal analyst for Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn. “Eventually, the data centers are going to have to be redesigned and redeployed,” he comments. And, there are still many unanswered questions about possible technology responses to the problem. “This is very, very new stuff. Data centers take years to plan and deploy, and the people who jump early will be the people who get it wrong.”

It could become necessary for insurers to start co-generating their own power, De Lotto says. “You may want to investigate moving your data center to some place where you can put in a geothermal plant. These things will take a great deal of time to investigate. But if you could move your data processing center to some place where power was coming out of the ground for free, or where you could put in your own wind farm and be completely, or mostly, off the grid—that makes a lot more sense, and it’s a lot greener than just moving things around in the midtown location that you’ve chosen because it’s an easy commute.”

Thanks to a mix of rising power costs and growing environmental concern, green IT is starting to catch the attention of IT decision-makers, according to a report from Info-Tech called Info-Tech’s Green Index: How Green Are You? The London, Ontario research firm found that a quarter of the North American IT executives it polled said they were very concerned or extremely concerned about improving energy efficiency and environmental responsibility in their data centers. Yet, there’s still a big gap between good intentions and action: The study found only 9% characterized their own data centers as very or extremely green. Concern among financial services companies, at 17%, was significantly below the average, but the proportion of green data centers, at 7%, was close to average.

Part of the general push for environmental responsibility among insurance companies comes from stockholders and stakeholders who want higher profits and higher returns, but also demand green practices, De Lotto says. Financial services companies traditionally have a culture of doing good and being perceived as doing good. “Even if they don’t have activist shareholders and stakeholders pushing them toward green behavior, they would be doing it themselves because it’s being perceived as the right thing to do,” he says. “The other thing is, it can save a heck of a lot of money.”

Most of the major carriers, and many of the mid-market and smaller insurers, already have environmental policies in place. Some, notes De Lotto, go out of their way to insure, and therefore help enable, green development, which is often more costly than conventional construction and, therefore, off the usual actuarial charts. Similarly, some auto insurers give discounts to customers who drive hybrid cars. Other carriers invest in alternative energy projects and set green standards for their suppliers.

Internally, common insurer practices include installing more efficient lighting, recycling waste paper, encouraging car pooling and use of public transit, adding hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles to the company fleet and encouraging customers to handle more transactions electronically.

Some carriers specifically address IT. Chevy Chase, Md.-based GEICO, for example, is replacing CRT monitors with more efficient flat-panel units, and installing more efficient air conditioning in its data center. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Bloomington, Ill., recycles computer components that aren’t fit for donation.

LEAN OR GREEN

De Lotto distinguishes between “lean IT” and “green IT.” Lean IT is IT practices that cut down on the use of resources and, coincidentally, save money. Green IT represents practices that are good for the environment, whether they save money or not. “They’re very much alike in a lot of respects at this moment,” he says, “but they represent two fundamentally different drivers, and they could turn their backs on each other very quickly.”

For example, De Lotto continues, replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs undoubtedly saves money and cuts energy use. But fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, and disposing of them is environmentally dicey. “Right now, if you’re saving energy, you’re taking a big step to save the environment, reducing your carbon footprint. But are you saving energy because you’re trying to save the world and be green, or because you’re trying desperately to save your bottom line?”

De Lotto draws the line between lean motives and green motives at ISO 14001, the International Standards Organization’s environmental management program. “You have to go out and substantially measure the environmental impact of what you’re doing, and then improve it,” he says. Many companies do things they think might be green, but don’t bother to measure the effect of their actions and really have no way of knowing how effective they are.

So far, ISO 14001 certification is rare in the financial services industry, but more than 100,000 companies are using it worldwide. Most of those are suppliers and outsourcers whose customers in the United States and Europe require proof that they aren’t destroying their local environments, according to De Lotto.

For carriers planning to build new facilities, another way to plan for and measure environmental impact is a rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED sets construction standards for environmental impact, indoor air and lighting, and certifies buildings that meet those standards. So far, De Lotto says, there is only one LEED-certified data center, built by Fannie Mae in 2005.

But Fannie Mae could soon have some company. Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate plans to break ground on a new data center, built to LEED standards, about 50 miles west of Chicago. Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group is awaiting LEED certification on a new facility in New Hampshire that will house, among others, its IT development teams. The Hartford is following LEED energy efficiency standards in a new office building it’s erecting in Connecticut.

Many lean and green activities are simple and inexpensive, De Lotto says. Replacing the average desktop PC and monitor with Energy Star-rated equipment saves $75 a year in electricity. Turning off peripherals and photocopiers at night, instead of leaving them on standby, saves $50 to $60 a year. Replacing lots of small copiers with a few central machines not only saves energy, but also discourages frivolous copying.

Other opportunities arise when big legacy systems are replaced by newer, leaner systems. Server virtualization software from companies such as San Jose, Calif.-based Cassatt Corp. and Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. can help servers run more efficiently.

Some initiatives, while they meet overall green objectives, may require more IT resources, at least in the short run. Telecommuting programs, for example, could take thousands of cars off the road, but at the cost of rising energy use in the IT department. “For the first year or two, it might be really rough on IT and cause energy costs to go through the roof,” De Lotto remarks.

Similarly, paperless initiatives can cause initial extra strains on IT, even though they provide solid environmental benefits overall.

MassMutual’s Retirement Services Division in Springfield, Mass. provides 401k plans to some 1 million participants in 5,400 companies nationally. “One of the largest paper consumption areas in the financial services business is the use of prospectuses,” says Ian Sheridan, the division’s chief marketing officer. “It’s an essential part of making investment choices and providing customers with the appropriate information they need about investing. But it is a very large proposition when it comes to its impact on the environment, and there are better ways, frankly, to deliver prospectuses.”

One of the better ways is to deliver them electronically, and the Retirement Services Division is doing just that. Not only does e-delivery save trees and postage; it also gets participants the most current information. It takes time to print and mail hardcopy prospectuses, says Diane Bogdan, second VP of the division. By the time the documents reach participants, some of the information could be out-of-date.

Although plan sponsors don’t have to accept e-delivery if they don’t want to, 59% of the 1,500 contacted by mid-November did, a rate Bogdan compares with the 1.5% to 2% rate similar programs achieve. Just for those who’ve accepted so far, the company will save an estimated 4.2 tons of paper.

Bogdan credits the high acceptance rate partly to good timing and partly to donations the division makes to an environmental group called The Conservation Fund. For each sponsor that opts for paperless prospectus delivery, MassMutual donates money to plant a tree.

E-delivery has required an investment in IT resources, says Sheridan. “There’s no immediate financial gain for us. In fact, it’s costing us money. But you’ve got to look at it long-term,” he says. “This is an investment in our business, an investment in our customers. You can’t really leave the green part out of it because you can’t get there, from an ROI standpoint, without considering the social impact.” How long will it take to get rid of paper prospectuses altogether? “Talk to me in three years,” Sheridan says.

DISPOSAL

So far, data centers are substantially unregulated when it comes to environmental issues, and what regulations there are tend to exist on a state-by-state basis, says De Lotto. “California is getting very aggressive about proper PC are disposal—same thing with New York. Where California and New York go, there goes everybody else.”

A surprisingly large number of PC vendors have disposal programs, De Lotto notes, and he urges his clients not to buy equipment from those who don’t. The programs work a lot like those run by tire and battery dealers: when you buy new tires or batteries, the dealers take the old ones back and return them for disposal.

Another disposal issue will turn on privacy legislation, according to De Lotto. “The chain of custody for electronic equipment is going to become extraordinarily important over the next couple of years. You’re going to have to prove that once you’ve taken ownership, it’s been run in a responsible manner and it’s been disposed of properly, especially anything that’s got customer data on it.

“Certainly, CIOs are going to have to be aware of the green regulations in every community that they operate in,” De Lotto concludes. “This is a case where they really can’t count on the public policy offices of their corporations because in a lot of cases, these guys who are monitoring public policy really aren’t that aware of IT and might not know that something was going to have an impact.”

Bob Mueller is a business writer based in Grand Beach, Mich.


Scenarios for Data Center Energy Savings
When it released its 2007 report on data center energy consumption, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created “improved operation,” “best practice” and “state-of-the-art” scenarios for improving energy efficiency in IT equipment, and power and cooling at data centers. Though EPA cautions that the measures are only illustrative and may only apply in some situations—new or expanded centers, for example—it does suggest steps IT executives may be able to take to cut energy use.

In the improved-operations scenario, EPA sees IT execs continuing to consolidate servers, eliminating unused servers, adopting energy-efficient servers to a modest extent, enabling power management on all applicable servers, cutting energy use with enterprise storage equipment and improving infrastructure energy efficiency through improved airflow management.

In the best-practice scenario, the agency includes everything in the improved-operations scenario, plus further consolidating servers; more aggressively adopting energy-efficient servers; moderately consolidating storage; using improved transformers and UPSs; and using more efficient chillers, fans and pumps.

In the state-of-the-art scenario, EPA includes all the measure in the best-practice scenario, as well as further consolidating servers and storage; enabling power management at the data center level or applications, servers and equipment for networking and storage; using direct liquid cooling; and combining heat and power.

The state-of-the-art scenario, EPA estimate, could reduce current electricity use by up to 55%, and the best-practice scenario could reduce it by up to 45%. Even the improved-operations scenario could save 20% of projected use by 2011.

Hardware Advances Help Data Centers Keep Their Cool
Servers, and the processors that power them, are the bedrock of the modern data center. Microprocessors, from their commercial introduction in the early 1970s until today, have mirrored the widely known contention of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, known as Moore's Law, which posits that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would grow exponentially approximately every 24 months.

Throughout 1980s and 1990s chip makers such as Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Advanced Micro Devices produced ever-denser chips with higher clock speeds. While managers of data centers were no doubt thrilled about the gains in performance these processors afforded, they were less enamored with the corresponding gains in heat and power consumption. Indeed, data centers were spending as much on cooling as they were on energy to run the processors, and the future of Moore's law seemed in doubt.

SHRINKING CIRCUITS, ADDING CORES

The problems of heat and energy consumption were certainly not lost on the manufacturers. Through advances in photolithography and material science, they have been able to shrink the size transistors on a processor. In general, smaller circuits provide better performance while consuming less power. While the circuits on chips made around the turn of the century featured circuits 180 nanometers (one billionth of a meter) wide, the current generation of Intel Xeon and AMD employ circuits 65 nanometers wide.

A more recent but equally important advance in processor design is the advent of multi-core architectures, as AMD, then Intel, forsook higher clock speeds for new designs that put multiple CPUs or "cores" on a single piece of silicon. The combined impact of these design changes was immediate in data centers.

Teradata, Dayton, Ohio, supplies data centers with servers based on dual-core Intel Xeon chips. “In the past three years, we’re getting 75% better performance per watt because of the technology that Intel’s providing,” says Jim Dietz, Teradata's product marketing manager.

Intel's latest generation of Xeons, unveiled in November to great acclaim, were made using a 45-nanometer process, and the top-end models sport four cores per die. “We’ll be using the quad cores very soon," Ditez says, noting that data centers are adapting well to parallel processing. “It’s the best way to leverage Moore’s law.”

AIR AND WATER

While the recent advances in processor architecture have helped, few would confuse a server cabinet with a meat locker. “The server cabinets are getting denser and denser power-wise,” Dietz says, noting that even as blade servers get thinner and more efficient, a cabinet full of them can still consume thousands of watts and produce prodigious amounts of heat.

One approach to combat this heat wave is to optimize airflow. Teradata employs a patented cabinet door design that channels the cooler air at the bottom of the case throughout the cabinet. “We’re able to take the airflow and use it 30% better than a typical cabinet,” Dietz says.

Other, more exotic solutions to heat dispensation include liquid cooling, which, while becoming popular with computer modders and gamers in recent years, has yet to make a large impression in server racks. However, the idea of using liquids to cool expensive electronic equipment is not all that novel or new.

“The original IBM mainframes had liquid cooling,” Dietz notes.

Just as performance per watt has become a point of pride for chip makers, server utilization is a key metric in a data center, although server utilization percentages in the teens are not uncommon.

VIRTUALIZATION AND UTILIZATION

The most prevalent way to up server utilization is through virtualization, where the workloads of several servers are virtualized to run on a single machine. Properly done, virtualization can push server utilization over 90%, thereby greatly reducing the number of servers present in a data center and, consequently, slash power consumption and cooling needs.

For something that many feel represents the next wave in data centers, virtualization is quite old. Like water-cooling and parallel processing, virtualization can trace its roots back to mainframes. “We’ve been doing virtualization for a dozen years. We typically ship systems that work best when being used 90% or better,” Dietz says, adding that the technology has really paid dividends in the multi-core era. “We are able to assign work to the cores with virtualization to keep those cores busy. We configure our systems that way.” Dietz says that the company is looking forward to future processor iterations such as the eight-core chips that Intel is working on.

Yet the reliance on newer, energy-efficient technologies doesn’t address the acres of older servers populating data centers. Ripping and replacing them might not be the greenest option. Instead, he says data centers can strike a middle ground between old and new technologies. Teradata designs its products around the principle of co-existence; where the new server is designed to work in concert with the company’s older technology, enabling users to get and extended use out of the existing system. “If you dump 30 cabinets worth of hardware into a landfill, what’s that doing for greenhouse gasses?” Dietz asks.

— Bill Kenealy


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