Energy-efficient servers earn a star -- but so what?

The EPA's Energy Star program will help the environmentally conscious but isn't likely to change major buying patterns anytime soon

Servers can now earn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star label in recognition of their green qualities, but most observers aren't expecting this program to cause substantial changes in how enterprises buy servers anytime soon.

The Energy Star server certification went into effect on May 15 and has earned the EPA kudos from manufacturers and users for promoting energy efficiency in an area that's notorious for its high electricity needs.

Energy Star

"This is a great first step. It's been important for some time, given the power issues of the data center, to give transparency on the energy use of servers," says Subodh Bapat, vice president and distinguished engineer in the sustainability office at Sun Microsystems Inc.

But the Energy Star label doesn't tell the full story on servers and their energy consumption. The current specifications measure energy use only under limited circumstances and for specific types of machines. Blade servers, so popular in enterprise data centers, don't qualify, for example. Energy Star specifications vary depending on a number of factors, such as configuration and server size, and certification requires that a server, when idle, cannot exceed certain energy consumption standards for its classification.

What all this means is that while an Energy Star label presumably will help users identify energy-efficient servers, anyone who wants to know more exact figures on their servers' electricity bills will still need to do their own testing and due diligence.

Different types of work

It's not a clean comparison at this point partly because servers are sized differently to do different types of work. Energy Star program officials are working with the server community to find the best way to make better, more direct comparisons between different servers. They're hoping the second version of the program will start to do that. But, even now, Energy Star servers will be in general more energy efficient than non-Energy Star servers, and the fact that they're more efficient in an idle state is important, because many servers are idle for a good portion of the time.

The current Energy Star requirement "is making sure the power supply itself is efficient, but it doesn't focus on the server overall. What it doesn't tell you today is what type of workload you can do for each unit of energy consumed," says Austin Hipes, director of field engineering at Network Engines Inc. (NEI), a Canton, Mass.-based appliance maker.

Instead, the Energy Star server specifications primarily measure whether a server's power supply has good efficiency across a range of workloads, Hipes explains.

That's not to downplay the importance of that information. That kind of efficiency, Hipes says, means that the server's power supply uses a significant portion of the energy it takes from the grid rather than losing a lot of it in the form of heat. (Heat is a big issue in data centers, because generally speaking the hotter the facility the more air conditioning is required to keep servers cool. There has been some counter-intuitive thinking about this in recent years, however.)

The EPA has been working on these server specs for several years, says Andrew Fanara, an Energy Star program manager in Seattle. Concerned about data centers' growing energy requirements, the EPA wanted to bring the Energy Star program to servers as a way to raise users' consciousness about the issue, Fanara says.

"We wanted to take the platform and standardize the information, to unlock some of that transparency, so people who buy servers, whether they buy one or two at a time or they buy them by the hundreds or thousands each year, can all benefit from what we're doing," Fanara says. It's also designed to give buyers an "apples-to-apples comparison between servers," he adds.

Server performance, reliability more important

The Energy Star designation is of interest to PricewaterhouseCoopers, says John Regan, director of data center services at the New York-based accounting and professional services firm.

"We're constantly looking at energy consumption, at the rack level, at the overall level of the data center, because everybody is conscious about being a good steward for the environment," says Regan, noting that PwC is focusing on how to improve energy efficiency at an 80,000-square-foot data center that it's planning to open this fall.

But energy efficiency is just one part of how users select servers; they also must consider performance and reliability, he adds.

Jill Eckhaus, CEO of AFCOM, an association of data center professionals, agrees. Data center managers will look for Energy Star certification as part of overall corporate green initiatives, but if the server doesn't do the job required, that label won't help close a sale, she says.

Eckhaus also questions whether the Energy Star program will get much traction right now, in this down economy. A year ago, data center managers might have been willing to invest in servers to get more energy efficiency, she says. "Now they're working with what they have."

Holding off on new servers

Doug Washburn, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., also sees limited immediate impact for the Energy Star label.

"Buying an Energy Star server can help reduce power consumption. And from a perspective of greening IT, this will certainly help with awareness," he says. But most IT shops aren't investing in new equipment right now, he adds.

Moreover, many IT shops still need to implement the basic operational improvements that often cost little yet yield big savings in energy consumption, Washburn says. Those improvements include better utilization of existing servers; studies have found that as much as 30% of a typical data center's servers are nearly always in an idle state, he says.

Still, Energy Star ratings will have some sway with enterprise IT managers, according to Washburn. Citing discussions he's had with clients, he says, "They will go with more energy efficiency if all other things are equal -- even if it's a little more expensive."

That's the kind of movement the EPA wants to see, Fanara says.

Next-gen specs on tap

Additionally, the program is meant to encourage manufacturers to strive to develop more-efficient equipment in a quest to earn the Energy Star label, Fanara says. Because U.S. agencies, some foreign governments and many private organizations, often require vendors to provide Energy Star equipment when available, the label can be a powerful marketing incentive, he adds.

"If we succeed completely with our goals, we will have transformed the industry in a couple of years," Fanara says.

However, Fanara acknowledges that the initial server specifications, called Tier 1, don't cover all energy measurements.

The challenge is in measuring efficiency in all servers, says Richard McCormack, senior vice president of marketing at Fujitsu America Inc. "There are a lot of ways to measure them and what they're doing. There's no single benchmark to cover everything, but I'm certainly a fan of coming up with something we can all look for," he says.

The next set of specs, called Tier 2, will identify servers that drive up productivity -- the EPA is working on how to measure that -- while reducing power consumption, Fanara says. The EPA expects to have Tier 2 specs, which would apply to more servers as well as measure server efficiency in more detail, ready for an October 2010 launch, Fanara says.

More recently, the EPA tightened the requirements that computer monitors must meet in order to earn the Energy Star label.

In the meantime, vendors said they're reviewing the final Tier 1 specs and are selecting which products they expect can meet those standards to earn that designation.

Mary K. Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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