Data Centre Efficiency Is Hotting Up

Data centres in Europe are blazing a trail in terms of going green. What you may be surprised to learn is that eco-consciousness is not such a major factor in pushing this forward – instead, the increasing cost of energy makes investing in efficiencies more and more appealing for business.

This is now becoming something of a global trend, with rising energy prices in the United States meaning that our American colleagues are embracing the trend and looking to Europe as a trend setter. Another defining factor is that hardware is now running at a higher temperature. Traditionally, IT hardware would run at around 19°C, but x86 hardware has stretched that by quite a margin and now data centre operators are looking at 25°C-27°C.

However, there are a number of companies that are beginning to use hardware capable of running at higher temperatures, reducing the cost of cooling. Dell for example, has Server & networking hardware that is capable of running at the telecoms NEBS (Network Equipment-Building System) or ETSI (European Telecom Standards Institute) standards which means that it can run at 35°C continuously. This is a significant change and various influencing factors – some legislative, some behavioural – also seem to be pushing the market in this direction.

Such a change will mean that many data centres, such as those in northern European countries, will be able to run without any cooling infrastructure – they simply need to move enough cool air around the facility. This ability to run without chillers enables organisations to save not only capital expenditure in terms of the infrastructure, but on operating expense as well. It is likely that data centres in the US will follow this example as not only does it make financial sense, it reduces the major issue of downtime as a result of cooling failure.

To further reduce operating expenditure and reduce energy consumption, data centre businesses must consider power, which is very strongly interrelated with cooling. Most companies are looking very closely at their power budgets and are painfully aware of how much power is needed and what it will take to provide adequate cooling. From that point of view, the power race has been replaced by a focus on performance per watt as efficiency has become the main concern.

The situation is very similar to what has occurred in the automotive industry; manufacturers previously aimed towards making the most powerful car, but now the focus is on developing the most economic, in keeping with market demands.

If you can come up with some means of keeping the hot and cold air separated, then there are some very quick wins in the data centre, such as blanking panels, and all of them offer massive leaps in efficiency for a relatively small cost.

These solutions have yet to be implemented on a wide scale because while many people are aware of them, they aren’t aware of their true implications in terms of efficiency improvements. The situation is that the gains are viewed as marginal at best and with mounting pressure to simply get the job done, these considerations are very often ignored.

The sheer pressure of keeping the kit running should not be underestimated and sufficient resource planning is absolutely vital. Maintaining good operational and data centre practices can offer a way of making steady improvements by ensuring that it’s a concurrent process – for example, every time a piece of hardware is taken out of a rack, a blanking panel should be put in.

Of course, another issue is that operators can become entrenched in a ‘small data centre’ attitude and will continue to do things in a certain way simply because it’s how they have always been done. Essentially, they believe that if everything worked when there were one or two racks, it should keep working when there are more.

The best advice is to take a step back and take advantage of all the available information. But be warned, there is a considerable amount of what is often called ‘green wash’ out there – things sound convincing, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the suggestions, they aren’t valid by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the advice, if implemented, would also have very long payback periods.

Reducing energy usage in data centres is therefore a win-win for the companies involved, boosting green credentials whilst pushing down costs. Most companies are very proud of what they have managed to achieve in terms of reducing consumption and data centre businesses are no exception to this rule.

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Jim Hearnden is an IEEE member and enterprise technologist at Dell UK. As an enterprise technologist specialising in data centres, Jim has over 30 years' experience in the IT industry. His area of expertise is power and cooling with long term experience of all types of computer hardware and environments. He also has a background in electrical, mechanical & electronic engineering. Previously, Jim worked for a variety of other major companies, including finance houses, telecommunications companies and hardware manufacturers. During this time he has delivered multiple projects involving the building and refurbishment of data centres as both a technical authority and project manager.