First National of Nebraska Inc.

First National of Nebraska Inc. was green before green was cool. The Omaha-based financial services firm took its first bold step in 1999, when it became the first company to build a data center powered entirely by fuel cell technology, which creates electricity by combining a fuel source and an oxidant.

Today, that system delivers 340 kilowatts of power to "the bunker," a 15,000-square-foot section of the data center that houses First National's critical systems for processing credit card transactions. The fuel cells, which emit no greenhouse gases, eliminated the need for uninterruptible power supplies, helping the data center achieve a "seven 9s" uptime rating. "We've never had an outage in eight years," says CIO Ken Kucera.

Using fuel cells came at a cost: 15 cents per kilowatt-hour versus 5 cents to buy power from the grid, says Brenda Dooley, president of subsidiary First National Buildings Inc. But the high uptime levels allowed the company to avoid building a backup data center, and that saved the company $75 million to $100 million, Kucera estimates.

The system has other benefits as well. The fuel cell, which generates waste heat and water vapor, is used for space heating and to melt ice on the sidewalks in winter. The system is a win-win for the business and the environment, Kucera says. "At the end of the day, we get the cleanest, most reliable power," he says.

While First National's use of fuel cells was innovative, it hasn't been replicated since. "There is no other major data center in this country, and possibly the world, that uses a fuel cell system," says Peter Gross, CEO at consultancy EYP Mission Critical Facilities Inc. The reason: complexity and cost. Because fuel cells don't respond well to spikes in load, the system needs flywheels to store energy and provide transitional power. A complete system like First National's takes as much floor space as a tennis court, he adds.

However, an emerging fuel-cell technology based on solid oxide could make fuel cells more attractive for data centers. Technology from start-up Bloom Energy Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif., shows the most promise. "It will be the first fuel-cell technology that will be commercially attractive and [cost-competitive] with the utility," Kucera says.

The pursuit of energy efficiency is a directive from top management, and managing electricity costs is one of the criteria on the scorecard that management uses to evaluate IT.

To further conserve power, Kucera has overseen a massive consolidation of servers, storage and networking infrastructure throughout the 190,000-square-foot facility. That effort consolidated 572 Windows servers onto virtual machines that run on server blades. The number of servers has grown to 750, but everything still fits onto 110 server blades that take up just two racks.

All storage has been consolidated onto three storage-area network subsystems. Some 100 firewalls have been consolidated to just 14. And about 40 Solaris Web hosting servers were consolidated onto a System z mainframe using IBM's Integrated Facility for Linux. "That makes a ton of sense. The arithmetic is very compelling," says Christopher Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. Kucera estimates that the consolidation saved $19 million in infrastructure costs. Today, despite substantial growth in the data center, overall power consumption has remained flat.

The re-engineering of the data center's cooling system included a new air-handling system that can push in more air than the old one. The data center also has an economizer that brings in cool outside air during the winter. With the new air handlers in place, air temperatures were raised from 48 degrees to 58 degrees.

"For every degree warmer that you bring the return air back to the [computer room air-conditioning] unit, you may improve its efficiency by about 1.5%," says Dave Kelley, director of application engineering at Liebert Corp., a cooling equipment provider.

Now IT has turned its attention to the 3,500 PCs in First National's front office. It is evaluating energy-efficient thin clients and virtual PC technologies such as Citrix Presentation Server, as well as offerings from IBM and VMware Inc. Virtual PC technologies haven't been adopted widely to date, but green initiatives are pushing them back into the limelight, says Mines. Some financial services firms, he says, have reported reductions in power consumption of 40% by using the technology.

First National is hoping for similar results. "We're testing in the first quarter and plan to move half of the company onto [virtual PCs]," says Arvind Thapar, vice president of systems and infrastructure.

Next: No. 4 Perkins+Will


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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