The new green: Data centers go au natural

LEED standard makes little dent overall, but L.L. Bean, Emerson say it changes approach

Most data centers have the ambience of bomb shelters, but not one built by retailer L.L. Bean.

The Freeport, Maine-based company made sure its new 18,000 square-foot data center had plenty of natural light and views of trees. It wanted something comfortable, conducive to work and environmentally sensitive. Natural light accomplishes all that.

"You don't mind being cooped up in a three-hour planning meeting; when your mind wanders you can look outside and see the clouds flow by," said Rocko Graziano, who managers the retailer's infrastructure operations and services.

The sunlight doesn't touch the IBM mainframe and other servers running L.L. Bean's business, but natural light does fill the operations room where the systems are managed. It is an approach encouraged, in part, by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard.

L.L. Bean's data center was built using LEED specifications, as was a recently opened data center by Emerson Electric Co. in St. Louis. It also makes use of natural light to reduce power use.

Emerson went a step further by installing a solar panel array on the data center roof. It's capable of generating 100 kilowatts of power to supplement building power usage.

Although the design standard is widely followed in office building construction, it has not made much inroad with data centers. Only eight data centers are certified in the United States, and 17 others are in line for certification, says the building council. L.L. Bean's data center was certified last year and Emerson expects to be certified as well.

LEED is primarily a set of design standards used in building a facility, and any number of things can earn "points" in a design. It can affect everything from a building footprint, such as the two story design of L.L. Bean's data center to minimize the impact on the land, to installing bike racks to encourage bicycle commuting.

Emerson built a 35,000 square-foot data center as part of a project to consolidate IT operations spread across 135 data centers. Any facility a with dedicated UPS and cooling system was counted as a data center and the company plans to reduce its IT operations to four centers located worldwide, according to Steve Hassel, the CIO of Emerson.

Emerson's consolidation project didn't begin with the standard in mind. The company wanted energy efficiency and decided to use LEED as plans developed. The benefits of this approach added up, Hassel said.

For instance, instead of one dumpster to handle all the construction debris, there were five dumpsters placed side-by-side, each with a designated waste for recycling. That alone led to a more than 80% reduction in waste that would have otherwise gone to the landfill, said Hassel.

Emerson had originally considered placing condensers separate from the building. Instead, the condensers were installed on the data center roof near the computer room's air conditioning systems, saving about 2.5 miles of copper piping.

Hassel said one of the benefits of using the LEED approach was that it helps to put you in an environmental quality mindset that encourages you "to naturally make decisions in a certain way."

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