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Scottrade turns up the heat, saves energy

Cuts power consumption by 8% -- in a new data center

December 18, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -

Temperatures are rising in online brokerage Scottrade Inc.'s data center -- and that's a good thing. The move has allowed the St. Louis-based company to reap enormous energy savings while increasing reliability.

Six months ago, CIO Ian Patterson hired engineering firm Glumac to construct a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model of its data center. The model provided a complete picture of thermal airflows in Scottrade's data center. Samuel Graves, chief data center mechanical engineer at Glumac, oversaw the effort. "Much can be learned from a thermal CFD model, and going forward, the model becomes an excellent tool to help determine the effectiveness of potential solutions," he says.

As is the case in many large data centers, Scottrade was overcooling the room. The solution: Fix the airflow problems and hot zones, and turn up the computer room air conditioning (CRAC) unit thermostat. That sounds scary, but Patterson says the recommendations cut power consumption by 8% and improved equipment reliability -- all without affecting the performance of the data center. Power and cooling infrastructure are a large piece of the data center's overall operating cost. The hard dollar savings from some fairly straightforward changes were "significant," Patterson says.

Scottrade didn't just manufacture those savings by retrofitting an old, poorly designed facility. Quite the contrary, Patterson achieved the efficiency gains in a brand new, state-of-the-art, 34,000-square-foot data center that Scottrade had rolled out in 2007. The cost benefits weren't limited to just power and cooling bills: Scottrade also reduced the load on backup power systems and reduced the number of backup batteries needed.

Four ways to cut the power

A few small changes can save data centers big bucks on energy consumption, cutting bills by 25% or more, says Glumac's Graves. Here are four tips:

  • Seal holes in raised floors

    It is very common to see very large holes cut under the power distribution units and racks to bring power and cable to the racks," says Graves. That affects air pressure in a raised floor, creating huge inefficiencies. "I did an evaluation of a large data center a couple of years ago," says Graves. When those holes were sealed, the client was able to shut down eight CRAC units, as they were no longer needed for cooling."

  • Add blanking panels

    It sounds simple, but many data center operators haven't taken this boring but critical step. Unless all vacant slots in a rack are sealed in this way, air from the hot and cold aisles will mix instead of moving through the rack from the cold aisle to the hot aisle as it should.

  • Think before you tile

    "Almost always the perforated tiles in the cold aisle are set up with an architectural appeal in mind and not the actual server load," says Graves. It may look nice to have those perforated tiles neatly spaced and aligned, but it creates imbalances between the air provisioned and the actual head load in the racks. Improper placement of perforated tiles is a major culprit behind cooling problems in data centers.

  • Do an assessment

    It's hard to know exactly where to place those perforated tiles if you don't know what your cooling requirements are in each row and for every rack. Consider hiring an engineering firm to create a basic CFD model of your data center. These models can be used to identify problem areas and to design the proper fix. According to Graves, the cost to model a large data center such as Scottrade's typically runs between $1.50 and $3.00 per square foot. Tuning and optimizing the model adds another 50 cents per square foot. "This is a generalization on cost, and obviously, the larger the data center, the lower the per-square-foot cost," he says.

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