Emerson examines everything

ST. LOUIS -- Steve Hassell, CIO at global technology and engineering giant Emerson, is only half joking when he suggests that before his career is over the data center will comprise one rack sitting in the middle of a white room.

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Who knows what the future will bring for the data center, given how amazingly fast the speeds and feeds are changing, he says.

As an example, Hassell points to Emerson's experience planning, building and populating the 35,000-square-foot data center the company opened two months ago on its St. Louis headquarters campus. This facility, which will host all Emerson business applications when fully operational, will be one of four global data centers the company has planned in a massive consolidation from 135 data centers of varying sizes.

When Emerson began building the data center early last year, it did so with the expectation that the facility would meet the company's needs for 10 years, and possibly, some thought, a few years beyond that, Hassell says. Even the more aggressive forecasts quickly became dated.

"Now, because of the technology shifts happening while we were building the data center," he says, "we feel we will not be space-constrained for the life of the facility. We think we'll make it to 20 years pretty easily."

The IT inside

That the data center's expected lifespan has doubled has much to do with IT's "ruthless standardization" of the server infrastructure, Hassell says. In the St. Louis data center, Emerson has standardized on Sun Unix servers and Dell x86servers. Using VMware virtual machines, Emerson expects to hit no less than an 18-to-1 consolidation ratio, he adds.

"We tried to future-proof the data center as much as possible as we deal with an industry for which the technology horizon changes every three to five years," Hassell says.

Toward that end, the company made an early bet on Intel's next-generation Nehalem processor.

"We specifically chose to go with Nehalem because of the chip's energy efficiency and because it can access memory more efficiently and allow us to reduce our footprint even more than possible with the 18-to-1 server reduction," Hassell says. "The Nehalem chip, by being so powerful, efficient and scalable, allows us to reduce our footprint by 50% more."

For the network infrastructure, a focus on the future had Emerson shunning copper wiring. Instead, it uses fiber to interconnect its Cisco Catalyst-based architecture.

"You can argue that that gives us only marginal benefits today, but now we're set up for future expandability. Scaling up from a speed standpoint and expanding out from rack standpoint will be much easier now because we're already fiber-connected everywhere," he explains.

The coolest of cooling

Copper has taken a hit outside the IT aisles, too.

Thinking outside the box, the company took an unusual approach to the cooling infrastructure -- eliminating the need for 2.5 miles of copper piping, Hassell says.

In a traditional data center, the heat exchangers needed for the air conditioning system are placed in an outside yard. Copper pipes, buried underground, connect the two. Because the pipes are buried, a company must account for maximum capacity from the get-go; while it can add heat exchangers as needed, it has to live with whatever conduit it has buried between the data center and the yard.

That old way of approaching the cooling infrastructure didn't jive with Emerson's new data center philosophy, which was to create a highly modular facility that would allow it to run efficiently whether opening the doors for the first time or running at maximum capacity 20 years from now. So the team thought, "Why not put the heat exchangers on the roof right over the air conditioners?" Nobody, including the building architects, had ever heard of this being done before, but the team couldn't find any good reason not to give it a try, Hassell says.

So Emerson eliminated the yard -- and all that expensive piping running out to it -- and achieved an unprecedented level of modularity with its cooling infrastructure. "And, from here on out the architecture firm is designing all its data centers with heat exchangers on the roof," Hassell adds.

Let the sun shine

The heat exchangers aren't the only rooftop novelty.

Also sitting atop the St. Louis data center is a 7,800-square-foot solar array that contains more than 550 solar panels and is capable of generating 100 kilowatts of power. The solar energy feeds into an inverter, which in turn funnels into the uninterruptible power systems for use in the data center, Hassell explains.

"We started with the idea of getting our feet wet, and by the time we were done we had created the largest solar array in Missouri," he says. "We've been able to learn a tremendous amount about solar energy while still having an investment that pays for itself."

Whether mulling over IT, cooling, power or any other aspect of the new data center, the team did so with efficiency top of mind -- "all the way from the chip to the grid," as Hassell says.

As it studied its data center options, the team followed the Energy Logic road map put together by Emerson Network Power, an Emerson business unit. The road map provides guidance on how to optimize energy use and minimize critical resource constraints — power, cooling and space — without compromising availability or flexibility.

"What this did for us was create a mindset of efficiency that helped guide us as we were making the hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions we had to make while architecting and laying out this data center."

The net result, he says, is a facility that's 31% more energy efficient than traditional data centers -- and one for which Emerson expects to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

And yet, Hassell admits that he had doubts on how efficient the company could get while still having a payoff on the different pieces. But he learned that every little effort counts, he adds, encouraging others in his position to keep an open mind to any and every idea -- "they add add up and can generate really large savings," he says.

"I feel good that we can move the needle this much on efficiency while still generating an ROI," he concludes. "It really gives me a lot of hope for efficiency as we move forward."

Schultz is an IT writer in Chicago. She can be reached at bschultz5824@nww.com.

This story, "Emerson examines everything" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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