EPA plugs ways to cut data center power needs

Draft report urges various steps by IT and calls for new energy efficiency benchmarks

Nothing in a digital society works without electricity, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the federal government and the private sector are consuming power at an accelerating pace to keep their data centers running.

To help reduce the demand for electricity, the EPA is recommending that companies and government agencies consider a broad menu of approaches to cutting their power usage, from seeking more efficient software to installing larger servers and virtualization technology.

The U.S. data center industry is "in the midst of a major growth phase," the EPA said in a 156-page draft report (download PDF) on power usage within data centers that was posted on the agency's Web site for public review late last month. Already, data centers are consuming up to 1.5% of all the electricity generated in the U.S., according to the EPA. And the amount of power used by IT facilities is on its way to a 75% increase by 2011, the agency said in the draft report.

The EPA is scheduled to deliver a final version of the report to Congress in June or July. The study, the result of legislation approved last year by Congress, is intended to get a handle on what can be done nationally to cut data center electricity bills and reduce the load on the country's power grids.

There are a lot of reasons for wanting to cut power use, especially for the federal government. The EPA estimated that the government consumes 10% of the 59 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity used annually to power U.S. data centers, at an overall cost of $4.1 billion. The total amount of energy consumed by data centers will increase to 103 billion kWh by 2011, the EPA predicted.

Although the report is still in draft form, it assembles a broad collection of research to make a case for adopting benchmark standards for measuring the energy efficiency of servers as well as entire data centers.

Indeed, the EPA wants to develop a way to measure the energy efficiency of everything inside the four walls of a data center. A data center benchmark of that sort "is really at the core of our recommendations," said Andrew Fanara, a team leader in the EPA's Energy Star program.

According to Fanara, the agency intends to measure energy usage at various federal data centers, taking into account a range of variables such as workload demands and the amount of redundancy a particular data center may need. The intent, he said, is to gather enough data from federal data centers to produce a statistically valid sample, which could then be used to determine an energy efficiency scale. It may take more than a year to complete the work, Fanara added.

The EPA said in the draft report that although power consumption will continue to increase, the pace of the increases will slow somewhat, thanks to the growing use of virtualization software and multicore processors, which handle more work in parallel while using less power than single-core chips do. The EPA also predicts that server vendors will move toward more energy-efficient systems through the use of components such as variable-speed fans that can respond to different cooling needs.

But the EPA said there are lot of other things that IT managers can do to improve energy efficiency, such as designing software to avoid excess code. "Treat CPU cycles as a finite resource," the agency advised. It also said that technology users should consider accelerated replacements of IT equipment, the adoption of storage virtualization, and large centralized servers to improve the sharing of computing resources.

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