Power Drain

As energy costs surge, customers and vendors are scrambling to store more kilobytes with fewer kilowatts.

Rick King helps run a $3.1 billion information services business for The Thomson Corp., and he says it’s crucial to get enough power to store the 2.5 petabytes of legal and regulatory data the company provides to its customers.

King, executive vice president and chief operations officer for Thomson’s North American Legal business, completed a 17,000-square-foot upgrade of two 10-year-old data centers in May 2005. Among other things, he boosted the power available from the original 25 watts per square foot to the 60 watts required by today’s denser, virtualized servers and storage. He also added redundant power feeds from separate electric substations and added more backup batteries and generators.

With the online share of Thomson’s business growing rapidly, King can’t afford to rely on third-party data centers that might not have access to sufficient power — or the will to make costly upgrades. So he’s preparing to consolidate smaller data centers and build a new 80,000-square-foot data center (with at least the same 60-watt-per-square-foot capacity) to house servers and storage for his company’s growing customer base.

Thomson’s hardware footprint is no small investment. And with power costs on the rise, King says his main concern now is finding and keeping skilled staffers who understand the interplay of computing technology, power requirements and facilities design.

Those skilled staffers come at premium prices, stretching budgets even further. In the second half of 2006, pay for some storage administrators grew 20%, according to David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at IT workforce consultancy Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn. Salaries for senior storage network administrators had risen 10% in the 18 months prior to December 2006, which was “well beyond the average growth in pay for IT jobs overall,” Foote says.

The combination of scarce and more expensive power, rising administrator salaries and storage needs that are growing as much as 70% annually is hitting IT budgets hard. Here’s how some companies are coping with these multiple storage headaches.

Where’s the Juice?

Disk and tape drives typically consume only one-fifth or less of the electricity used by a data center, with servers using much of the rest. But every terabyte of data stored online and available for production applications needs to be backed up for disaster recovery, with a third copy often archived for legal purposes. Saving data in triplicate can, of course, triple the amount of power required to run and cool storage devices. It can also lead to a need for more ducts or water pipes and an increase in the emergency battery or generator capacity needed.

Electricity is also getting more expensive. Commercial customers such as data centers paid an average of 7.43 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2000 and an average of 8.67 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. By November 2006, the average price had risen to 9.11 cents per kilowatt-hour, the department says. And regional spikes to as high as 14.38 cents per kilowatt-hour in some locales led customers such as Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. and Intuit Inc. to build large data centers near power sources in eastern Washington, says Jim Kerrigan, a principal at The Staubach Co., a commercial real estate firm in Chicago.

“The power situation has gotten to the critical stage over the past year and a half,” says George Coulter, vice president and CIO at The AES Corp., a global utility and power-generation company in Arlington, Va. “Our data centers are pretty much at capacity,” he says, adding that obtaining power for cooling is a bigger challenge than obtaining electricity to run the equipment in the first place.

In late 2006, market research firm Gartner Inc. estimated that by 2008 nearly 50% of data centers worldwide will lack the power and cooling capacity needed to support high-density equipment such as blade servers.

Increases in the demand for power are outpacing expansions of the nation’s power transmission grid, the large power lines that send electricity from power plants to major urban areas, says Clark Gellings, vice president of innovation at Electric Power Research Institute Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. In an August 2006 report, the Department of Energy said that the Northeast and the Los Angeles area were particularly prone to congestion in these lines.

While the cost of building data centers varies widely according to their location and the degree of uptime they need to provide, Kerrigan says a data center providing “five 9s” (99.999%) reliability can cost upwards of $1,000 per square foot.

Coping Strategies

To combat high costs and low availability, some users are being forced into collocation facilities that rent space to multiple companies. Universal Service Administrative Co. is moving much of its operations out of its Washington headquarters into such a facility. “We can’t get any more draw to the building itself,” says Bryan Sastokas, director of information systems, strategy and architecture at the organization, which administers a fund that pays for telecommunications services to rural and poor customers.

Hoping not to get caught short of power again, designers of new data centers are building in extra power and cooling capacity that can easily be tapped as needed. When outsourcing vendor Infocrossing Inc. built a new data center in Tempe, Ariz., it left 36 inches (rather than the usual 11, 18 or 24 inches) under the raised floors so it would have more cool air available in the future, says Chief Technology Officer Dave Leonard. It also designed extra capacity into both the power lines coming into the building and the connections that carry cooling water and air through the data center.

Other organizations are using technologies like virtualization, data de-duplication and data compression to reduce the amount of storage they need — and thus the number of power-hungry devices required to hold data. Vendor coalitions are also collaborating on ways to improve the energy efficiency of their products.

Managing Lean

The process of managing storage can be one of the big contributors to its overall cost. But done right, storage administration can dramatically reduce the demand for storage.

Sastokas says he is relying on strict storage management policies, the use of document management systems “and changing workflows and culture” to eliminate common, space-wasting practices. For example, to avoid situations where users send multiple copies of a 5MB PDF to 30 or 40 co-workers, each of whom might store several revisions on a network drive, a document management system can direct all users to a single copy of the file.

Warren Habib, CTO at Fotolog Inc., a New York-based photo-sharing and social networking site, estimates that storage servers from 3PARdata Inc. save his company $60,000 in administrative costs annually, not to mention the savings in storage management software. Because 3PARdata’s “thin provisioning” technology automatically expands storage volumes as needed, “we don’t need to have people constantly resizing volumes or constantly monitoring our growth,” says Habib.

Ken Lehman, group director for the shared services operation at defense contractor Northrup Grumman Corp. in Dallas, is focused on a companywide information life-cycle management project designed to hold back the growth of the more than 700 petabytes of data he already manages. Over the next three to five years, Lehman says, he doesn’t foresee major technology changes “that are going to handle the demand coming our way.” But properly moving data to less-expensive tiers as its value declines — and disposing of it when it’s not needed — “has a direct impact on staffing, power, space, data protection” and every other piece of the storage cost footprint, he says.

In other words, it’s fine to use new technologies such as de-duplication, thin provisioning and virtualization to reduce the amount of staff and electricity it takes to store your data. But put policies in place that let you classify and eliminate data wherever possible so you don’t have to store it in the first place.

Scheier is a freelance writer in Boylston, Mass. Contact him at rscheier@charter.net.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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