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EPA moves to help put data centers on an energy diet

As energy use -- and costs -- spiral, IT execs turn to the feds and vendors for aid.

March 24, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - At one time, small x86-based servers were the darlings of the data center -- inexpensive, easily replaced and easily added. Today, these systems have become akin to a cancer, consuming ever-increasing amounts of IT floor space and power.

Data center energy consumption may not be out of control, but it has become enough of a concern for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and try to help.

The agency last week announced that it is developing a benchmark to help IT managers compare energy consumption in their facilities with that of other data centers.

The EPA says potential financial savings from improving data center efficiency are significant -- even a 10% cut in expected energy consumption in U.S. data centers over the next few years would save enough energy to power up to 1 million homes per year. Such a cut would also help reduce greenhouse gases and cut industry IT costs by about $740 million annually, it said.

The EPA project comes as midsize and large companies are expected to significantly increase data center capacity over the next few years -- intensifying the need to consolidate machines and better use space.

Several independent studies have found that anywhere from one-third to more than two-thirds of midsize to large businesses will build data centers or expand existing ones in the next few years. For example, a 2005 study by Afcom, an association of data center professionals, found that more than 60% of its 3,000 members planned to expand their data centers within 10 years.

This construction boom is expected to double power use by U.S. data centers over the next five years, the EPA said last year.

About 100 companies have already said they will provide raw power data and other information to the EPA for use in developing its new benchmark, which should be available in about two years the agency said.

Miles Kelly, vice president of marketing and strategy at 365 Main Inc., a San Francisco-based data center operator, said his company has agreed to supply the EPA with operating information from its six data centers.

The company, whose facilities are used by hundreds of large organizations, including hosting and telecommunications companies, hopes to get a better grasp of its facilities' energy consumption, Kelly said.

By comparing the efficiency of the 365 Main data centers with similar facilities, "we can make better and clearer decisions," he added.

Mike Zatz, who manages the EPA Energy Star program that promotes the use of energy-efficient products to businesses, said the agency must essentially start the effort from scratch because there are no widely accepted means for comparing data centers. "What the industry really wants to get to is a measure of energy use per output from the data center -- what we would call 'useful work,'" said Zatz. However, he added that "the industry hasn't agreed on what 'useful work' means."

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