The 5 quickest returns on your green investment

Some enterprises have found ways to ensure their technology investments provide both environmental benefit and a quick return on investment.

"Because energy efficiency was never a significant factor in the architecting, designing and development of most IT infrastructure in the past, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit that businesses can go after," says Simon Mingay, an analyst at Gartner. "There is so much 'fat' inside most data centers, that it's not that difficult to make a business case where you can make operations greener and save money at the same time."

According to Gartner, the "green wave" has only begun to rise. The research company predicts that by next year, more than a third of all IT organizations will place environmental concerns within their top six buying criteria. By 2010, Gartner says, three-quarters of companies will use carbon-footprint considerations with their hardware-buying strategy and by 2011 large enterprises will develop policies requiring their suppliers to prove their "green credentials" through an auditing process.

Most companies are talking a good game but not really going green where it counts. According to a survey of 124 IT operations by Forrester Research in May 2007, some 85% of respondents said environmental factors are important in planning IT operations. But only a fourth of survey respondents have actually written green criteria into their company's purchasing processes.

Enterprises that have started the green journey, however, have found that reducing total energy requirements can be accomplished through some fairly straightforward improvements that don't take years to implement or bring return.

Consolidate and virtualize

Consolidating IT operations, and using virtualization to reduce sever footprint and energy use, are the most well-recognized and most-often-implemented efficiency strategies of the past few years. Some of the largest technology organizations in the world have recently completed major data center consolidation projects, including Advanced Micro Devices, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Sun Microsystems.

Arlin Sorensen, chief executive and president of Heartland Technology Solutions, a value-added reseller with eight locations in five states, wanted his IT department to support new growth in the business. But he didn't want to relocate the primary data center from its headquarters in Harlan, Iowa, where Sorensen first began the company on his farm as a hobby in 1985.

The company was running about twice the number of servers it had space for, and temperatures were hitting the mid-80s. By moving to newer and more efficient blade servers from HP and using virtualization software from VMware, Heartland has been able to remove about half of the physical hardware in the data center and reduce energy use by about 15%.

"We either had to build a new building or collocate, which likely would have led to increased use of resources for us as a company," Sorensen says. "We found a way to enable us to continue to operate here at our headquarters and reduce total energy usage."

"To me, energy is the 800-pound gorilla out there in eco-space, and it generally translates directly to money," says Mark Monroe, director of sustainable computing at Sun.

In about nine months last year, Sun relocated and consolidated a 200,000-square-foot data center into 72,000 square feet of space within its Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters. The company eliminated the use of some 5,000 electronic devices, including more than 1,000 servers, and reduced total energy requirements by nearly 1.5 megawatts.

Sun is still collecting data, but Monroe says its power reduction will translate to a savings of US$1.5 million a year in energy consumption (at 10 cents per kilowatt hour).

Use supplemental cooling units

Sun promised its users new and more efficient servers if they were able to consolidate their physical hardware onto virtual machines by at least a 2:1 ratio. The company also updated its approach to data center design. Traditional design calls for bulky computer room air conditioners (CRAC) units that are placed on the perimeter of the floor to move large amounts of air around the data center. Instead, Sun used in-row or supplemental cooling units from American Power Conversion (APC) and Emerson Network Power.

The APC in-row units typically enclose a row or two of servers, and the backs of all the servers are pointed into a single 'hot' aisle. Heat in the aisle is contained by a roof and end-row doors, allowing cooling to be applied directly to the heat source, rather than trying to cool after the heat is dispersed into the general data center floor.

For its part, the Emerson Liebert XDV system is attached directly over a row of server racks, again bringing maximum cooling directly to the heat source.

The close-proximity cooling approach is between 20% and 30% more efficient than a traditional CRAC implementation, Sun's Monroe says. Use of the new cooling equipment also allowed Sun to build 80% of the data center without the need for raised flooring. Traditional data center design calls for at least 50% of raised-floor space.

Measure and optimize

For the past two years, The Green Grid has grown from 11 founding members to a consortium of more than 150 companies working to improve data-center energy efficiency. Within the year, the group is expected to release some of its most important deliverables in the form of metrics that businesses will be able to use to measure the power usage effectiveness (PUE) of specific equipment including servers. It will also create a data center infrastructure efficiency (DCiE) metric that will allow the measurement of data center productivity.

The metrics are expected to simplify the process of efficiently designing and operating a data center. But most businesses can already readily identify areas where infrastructure optimization can achieve increased efficiency by simply monitoring and measuring their existing infrastructure equipment, says Larry Vertal, a Green Grid director and senior strategist for Green Grid member company AMD.

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency is stepping in to help create metrics as well. About 100 companies have already said they will provide raw power data and other information to the EPA for use in developing its new benchmark, which should be available in about two years, the agency said.

Until widely accepted metrics become available, businesses should make sure the utility costs associated with their data center operations are broken out separately from those for other corporate facilities. In addition, metering specific equipment racks or types of equipment such as servers can provide valuable insight into which specific consolidation, virtualization and optimization projects would yield the best ROI going forward.

Try data deduplication

Data deduplication uses algorithms to dramatically compress the amount of storage space needed. Many organizations are dealing with increased scrutiny of electronically stored information because of various regulations, and this is driving significant growth in demand for storing large sets of data. Depending on the type of information being compressed, deduplication can enable a compression rate of between 3:1 and 10:1, allowing businesses to reduce their need for additional storage equipment and associated tapes and disks. Many businesses are already using the technology.

Rust Consulting, a Minneapolis-based independent claims adjustor, experienced several years of 40% revenue growth. Its resulting storage platform derailed the IT department with days-long backup windows. Adding new arrays of tape libraries would be costly, and would require additional data center floor space and energy resources, says Tim Holtan, systems analyst at Rust.

Instead, Rust deployed a disk backup and replication appliance from Quantum with deduplication technology. The platform, which was deployed a year ago, has allowed the company to see a near 90% reduction in disk capacity, and dramatically reduce its backup effort and its need to purchase tape.

"We're getting compression rates of 30-to-1 on database stuff, and 16-to-1 on our regular file system," Holtan says. "Purchasing more and more tape gets to be very expensive, and you've got to have somewhere to store it and access the information when needed."

Look for rebates and incentives

More utility providers are offering rebates or other incentives that encourage businesses to update equipment and adopt efficient operational practices that can help reduce peak and total power demands. Companies doing this include Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco and Austin Energy in Austin, Texas.

CDW Berbee has experienced fast growth as a provider of managed services. Demands on its data centers in Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis increased so rapidly that in addition to an increase in power usage, the company began experiencing floor temperatures of 80 degrees.

"Five years ago, I stayed up nights worrying about how space constraints would hinder my business and data center growth," says Wayne Rasmussen, data center manager at CDW Berbee. "But with form factors shrinking, concerns about space were replaced by concerns about heat density -- [and] because of technology changes my old data center was in effect out of capacity with only two-thirds of the actual floor space being used."

Rasmussen installed Emerson Network Power's Liebert XDH horizontal row supplemental cooling system and has been able to stabilize floor temperatures, as well as save 11 kilowatts per hour in operational cost. This resulted in a rebate of $1,725 from CDW Berbee's energy provider, Excel Energy.

For a company the size of Sun, where more than 125,000 square feet of operating data center was eliminated, the incentives can be even higher. Sun's Monroe estimates the company has received nearly $1 million in utility incentives as a result of its consolidation effort.

"The power companies don't want to have to build all the new capacity that may be required to keep all these new and growing data centers in operation," he says. "Everyone has ended up happy. The facilities guys didn't have to build as much space, the IT organization and engineering groups got new equipment that was smaller, cooler and faster than before, and the power company was happy to eliminate a big chunk of demand."


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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