Data centers can fuel a more sustainable future

By taking a more conscientious attitude toward our energy consumption, we can both cut expenses and become better stewards of the environment.

If the data center industry seeks guidelines on how to support a more sustainable environment, it would do well to consider an August 2014 report from the National Resources Defense Council. The NRDC brief details the wasted electrical consumption that flows through the nearly 3 million computer rooms in the United States, which use electrical power equivalent to the annual output of 34 large coal-fired power plants.

NRDC found that “up to 30 percent of servers are ‘comatose’ and no longer needed, other machines are grossly underutilized, and a number of strategic and tactical barriers still remain.” Among the problematic strategies it cited are peak provisioning, which results in vast underutilization of powered-up equipment; limited deployment of virtualization technology to reduce the number of servers required; failure to power down unused servers; and shortsighted procurement practices that fail to focus on more efficient equipment models.

The NRDC offers three recommendations to accelerate efficiency in data centers:

  • Adoption of a simple server utilization metric, such as the average utilization of the server CPU.
  • Alignment of incentives among decision-makers to provide financial rewards for efficiency best practices.
  • Public disclosure of data center energy and carbon performance to drive behavior change.

From my perspective, data center owners should be concentrating on three steps to help reduce waste and make operations more economical:

  1. Refocus efforts to root out energy inefficiency everywhere possible—in IT, power, cooling, operations and even embedded carbon. Our industry should adopt the Japanese philosophy of zero-defect manufacturing and use it to boost data center energy efficiency.
  2. The data center should become part of the local or regional utility grid, with new business models to buy and sell energy by serving as smart municipal microgrids. The data center can become a reserve supplier on the grid, mitigating the need for peak-demand centralized power generation.
  3. While economics dominate the value proposition for investment in data centers and are clearly driving industry consolidation, we should consider whether economics alone are a good foundation for sustainability.

The NRDC states that, “if just half of the savings potential from adopting energy efficiency best practices were realized, America’s data centers could slash their electricity consumption by as much as 40 percent.”

The NRDC recommendations are not just valid for America, but are applicable everywhere data centers operate. By taking a more conscientious attitude toward our energy consumption, we can both cut expenses and become better stewards of the environment.

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About the author

Ciaran Flanagan

I'm Head of Data Center Business Development at ABB globally, tasked with consolidating ABB as a key player in the datacenter industry. Prior to ABB I was Head of Datacenter Strategy at Nokia & previously held Consulting and Technology leadership roles at Verari Systems and Intel Corporation. I was a Founding Contributor to the EU Datacenter Code of Conduct and a Contributing Member of The Green Grid and the Open Datacenter Alliance. I also served as a Judge for Uptime Institute's Green Enterprise IT Awards in 2012. From a professional perspective I'm very interested in energy politics and how it will affect the datacenter industry but also how ABB can help this industry find more effective and efficient ways to manage energy consumption.
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