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Green IT Article
It's time for Data Centres to go Green
Published: 2009 October

The energy consumed by data centres has been a hot topic for a few years now. But are enough IT managers taking steps in the right direction?


According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the energy used by American data centres doubled between 2000 and 2006. That year they consumed a staggering 61 billion kilowatt hours of energy – enough to power the whole of the UK for two months.


Since then awareness of the phenomenal energy requirements of data centres has increased. According to research published in September by Gartner Group, most IT managers now consider this the most pressing environmental issue faced by their department. However 48% admitted that they hadn’t yet looked into measuring and monitoring the energy used by their data centre, and the impact of any improvements they might make.


63% of those surveyed said they anticipated their data centre would reach peak capacity within the next 18 months. 15% said theirs was already functioning at full capacity and they were looking to expand the current site or rent or build additional space to cope with the demand.


But before splashing out on data centre expansion projects, IT bosses should focus on maximising the efficiency of their current facilities to boost capacity. This will result in lower fuel bills as well as reduced carbon emissions.


Organising data more efficiently and consolidating it to optimise the use of existing servers is a good start. The capacity of individual servers can be increased by up to 30% through virtualisation.


Deploying energy management software will prevent servers using more energy than they actually need. And the MIT Technology Review recently published a study unveiling a new algorithm that could cut data centres’ energy usage by 40%!


Whichever techniques you choose to try, continually monitoring the energy reductions achieved by each change is essential.


The energy used by the servers themselves is only one part of the equation. Air conditioning to counteract the heat they create is also energy intensive. Simply rearranging the racks and rationalising cabling to increase airflow can cut the power required significantly. However cooling is still likely to account for 40-60% of the total energy used, even in an efficiently organised data centre.


Encouragingly, some big names in the IT industry are leading by example, coming up with innovative new cooling techniques. Microsoft is rumoured to be planning a giant data centre in Siberia, where the cold external temperature would offset the heat generated. Google has been granted a patent for floating data centres located on barges moored out at sea, cooled by salt water/fresh water pumps and heat exchange technology. And Sun Microsystems plan to set up servers in an abandoned coal mine in Japan, using ground water as a natural coolant.


Other companies are looking at outsourcing their data centre requirements to Iceland. A giant ‘server farm’ is currently being build just outside Reykjavik, which is scheduled to start renting out server space to organisations around the world in late 2010. High speed fibre-optic cabling is already being laid, linking Iceland with North America and other parts of Europe in preparation for the launch.


In addition to the year-round cold, which will reduce cooling requirements, Iceland’s electricity comes from 100% renewable energy, offering clients the chance to massively reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile green web hosting company has implemented an impressive array of cooling technologies inspired by nature at their base in California. These include air conditioning powered by the atmospheric energy in the air and evaporation of rainwater. They’re currently in the process of creating a green roof, planted with drought-resistant plants, that they anticipate will reduce the energy needed to cool their data centre by 50%, as well as absorbing C02. They also generate their own electricity, with solar panels and wind turbines on-site!


Realistically most companies don’t have the resources to go to such impressive lengths. However there is growing motivation to do something.


In 2008 October the European Parliament published a code of conduct on data centre energy efficiency, which sets out clear (though optional) guidelines for data centre energy management. And The Green Grid – a consortium of IT industry leaders – has established standards for measuring data centre efficiency, and is encouraging companies to sign up to make their measurements public.


In the UK from 2010 April many organisations in the UK will be required to sign up to the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). This will affect any business using 6,000 megawatts of electricity per year, equivalent to an annual bill of around £500,000.


The CRC will tie them into making step-by-step reductions in their carbon footprint within a set timeframe and the results will be published. Even companies below the threshold will feel pressure to voluntarily sign up to the CRC to demonstrate that they’re an environmentally responsible organisation.


But why wait for legislation to come into force? You could start saving money and cutting your organisation’s environmental impact now.

Page updated: Fri 26 Nov 2021

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