Data center operators to share energy tips, test results next week

Some of the biggest names in the data center industry will gather in Silicon Valley next week to discuss the results of real-world tests intended to help identify the most effective ways to reduce energy consumption in data centers.

Operators of some very large data centers, including the U.S. Postal Service, Yahoo and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will present about a dozen case studies documenting their experiences with technologies and practices for improving energy efficiency. They include wireless sensor networks for managing air flow in data centers, modular cooling systems that reduce heat spots around densely packed servers and high-efficiency power transformers.

One of the goals is to produce real-world data that will help other organizations decide which technologies they can implement to reduce power consumption and what savings they can hope to achieve from them, said Teresa Tung, a senior researcher at Accenture, which plans to publish a free report on its Web site next Thursday that pulls together the results.

"If you want to make the case for your data center to use some of these initiatives, it's nice to have real-world data you can point to and say, 'Here are the savings that somebody got,' " she said.

The project has been organized by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents some of the area's biggest technology companies, along with Berkeley Labs. Other companies hosting tests in their data centers include Oracle, NetApp, Synopsys and Sun Microsystems, which is hosting the event next Thursday. The event is called the Data Center Energy Summit. The data centers have been testing technologies from SynapSense, IBM, Cassatt, Powersmiths, Power Assure, Liebert, APC, Modius, Rittal and SprayCool.

The vendors' motives for taking part are not only altruistic. As organizations try to expand their data centers and add more powerful servers, energy consumption could be a major inhibitor to growth in the tech industry and the economy as a whole. The event is a chance to promote technologies that allow organizations to keep growing their data centers.

The effort by industry may also help ward off potential government regulation in this area. "If there were to be regulation and certification, we definitely want it to be couched in real results that we know can be achieved by adopting these best practices and technologies," Tung said.

In a report last August (PDF here), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2006, data centers accounted for about 1.5% of total U.S. electricity consumption, or enough to power about 5.8 million homes. It forecast that the energy consumed by data centers would almost double by 2011 if current trends continued, although it said widespread use of best practices and "state of the art" technologies could reverse the growth.

Part of Accenture's role is to compare the test results with the projections in the EPA's report. Andrew Fanara, head of the EPA team that authored the report, said next week's findings would "complement" the EPA research and help validate its projections. Fanara said he expected to attend the summit next week, along with representatives from the Department of Energy.

Participants said the event is unique because of the cooperation from data center operators, who typically are secretive about their operations. "This level of transparency is rare in the data center industry, but its a sign of how committed the participants are to increasing energy efficiency," said Jim Smith, vice president of engineering at Digital Realty Trust, another of the data centers taking part.

All the technologies being tested are available today. The case studies cover basic best practices, such as improving air flow management and consolidating server equipment, as well as emerging technologies like the wireless sensor networks. The case studies will all be published at no charge, along with Accenture's consolidated report.

Sun tested modular cooling products from five vendors, and Accenture will present a side-by-side comparison of the results, Tung said. Digital Realty Trust, Yahoo and NetApp tested air economizers, which use outside air to supplement cooling systems when the outside air is cold enough, a technique also called "free cooling."

The U.S. Postal Service is in the process of upgrading a data center in San Mateo, Calif., that will use high-efficiency power transformers, also called power distribution units, or PDUs, made by Powersmiths. Its case study will compare the operating losses of transformers already in place with the new high-efficiency products, said Peter Ouellette, Powersmiths' district manager for Northern California.

Not all the technologies were tested thoroughly. Only two weeks of data were collected for the free-cooling equipment, so the results had to be extrapolated for the year, Tung said. But she thinks most of the data will be valuable. "In each case, we've given the 'before' and the 'after,' so the before sets the baseline and the after shows what was actually saved," she said.

The summit is one of several initiatives to address energy use in data centers. Others include the Green Grid, a vendor-led effort. The Uptime Institute and McKinsey published a report on the subject in May, and the EPA is working on an Energy Star specification for both servers and data centers.

Summit organizers said the event plugs a gap between recommending energy-efficient technologies and documenting the savings from their usage.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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