Self-contained data centers already being sown

When Steve Sams looks into the not-so-distant future, he can see a time when data centers will no longer be the power-consuming beasts they are now. And when he looks around now, he sees the seeds of those self-contained data centers already being sown.

"We do have a number of data center components now available that are rugged enough to withstand constant 50-degree Centigrade [122-degree Fahrenheit] temperatures," Sams, IBM vice president of global sites and facilities, said at the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit here Aug. 3.

"It's not hard to imagine that we'll eventually get to full data centers that won't need cooling equipment. These will be hundreds of times more efficient. And what a savings in power draw that will be."

Power, cooling and energy efficiency have become key issues in the IT industry as data centers become more densely populated by power-hungry systems and businesses move away from paper-based processes to digital information management.

It was the same story at the event here, as officials with IT vendors, analysts and attendees wrestled with the myriad aspects involved in the issue.

A key part of the discussion was a report submitted to Congress Aug. 2 by the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program outlining the energy challenges facing the IT industry and possible steps that can be taken to alleviate some of the problems.

It won't be easy, though, according to the report. The technology sector is seeing power consumption rise rapidly. The EPA estimated that the IT industry consumed about 61 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006—about 1.5 percent of the total electricity consumed in the United States—at a cost of about $4.5 billion. Power consumption in the industry could nearly double by 2011, the report said. Federal servers and data centers accounted for about 10 percent—or 6 billion kwh—at an electrical cost of about $450 million.

The EPA also outlined some ways to mitigate the issue, including standardizing metrics for data centers, creating an Energy Star performance rating system and giving financial incentives, such as tax credits and utility rebates. Reaction to the EPA report here was generally positive.

"It should significantly boost awareness of the energy issues associated with our ever-increasing reliance on computers, and it provides a very preliminary set of benchmarks," Eric Birch, executive vice president of thermal and airflow solution provider DegreeC in Milford, N.H., told eWEEK.

"I expect many organizations—corporations, universities, cities and states—will find various stakeholders asking new and more pointed questions about what's being done and what's the plan," Birch contined.

"The questions may come from the desire to 'go green,' or they may be mainly about the money, but by September [after everyone returns from vacation], all sorts of organizations will need to have some answers for such questions their stakeholders will be asking."

The report is a key step in educating customers, policymakers and the public on opportunities to conserve energy in data centers, said Paul Perez, vice president for scalable data center infrastructure for Hewlett-Packard, in Palo Alto, Calif.

"HP is reviewing the EPA's recommendations on standards, research and development, and partnerships to determine possible adoption of policies that encourage the public and private sectors to use available technologies to reduce data center energy consumption," Perez said.

The EPA commended the technology industry for already taking strides in trying to make data centers more energy efficient. Chip makers such as Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and Sun Microsystems are using methods to increase the performance of their processors without ramping up the power consumption.

At the same time, systems vendors are also using a mixture of hardware components and software to make their servers and computing devices more energy-efficient.

Panelists in a discussion on green data centers here Aug. 1 were asked whether they thought the future might bring data centers that no longer need cooling equipment, thus cutting back substantially on power draw. The answer across the board was "yes."

Officials from IBM, HP and Sun said their companies are already doing research and testing in this area and are beginning to come out with no-cooling-necessary components, if not full data centers.

Sun, of Santa Clara, Calif., might be the closest to having a self-sustained, no-outside-cooling-necessary data center.

"We've already got a version of this self-contained data center in our Blackbox," said Subodh Bapat, vice president and distinguished engineer in Sun's Eco-Responsibility Office. "All you need is a concrete floor, a chilled water source and a power draw, and you have a portable data center that can be dropped in just about anywhere."

In October, Sun unveiled Project Blackbox, which combines storage, computing, and network infrastructure hardware and software—along with high-efficiency power and liquid cooling—into modular units based on standard 20-by-8-by-8-foot shipping containers. Each Blackbox holds up to 250 Sun Fire blade servers and provides up to 1.5 petabytes of disk storage, 2 petabytes of tape storage and 7 terabytes of RAM. The Blackbox itself needs no air cooling.

In March, Rackable System unveiled its own mobile data center, code-named Concentro, which is a 40-by-8-foot data center that can hold up to 1,200 of company's rack-mount servers.

We'll see "huge leaps forward" over the next few years when it comes to the no-cooling-needed data centers, Bapat said.

"We're already on that track now, and we're only going to continue to discover more ways to improve systems—through lower-power processors, better design and other components," he said.

Mike Rigodanzo, HP's senior vice president for technology services, said his company is leading the charge for better-tuned data centers—installations that use optimal designs for airflow and air conditioning unit location, for example.

"Big [data center] rooms are not homogeneous," Rigodanzo said. "Each one has its own airflow and design challenges, so services are needed to set up the center right the first time. Designing the center properly in the first place is essential to an efficient operation."

New software that monitors the power draw across the data center and then calibrates it with the work load at hand on a dynamic basis will soon become available, Sun's Bapat said. That will become a major power-saving factor, he said.

IBM's Sams said he agreed that there are strides being made but said more could be done now. He said that people in general are "pretty abysmal at predicting improvements in IT."

"Some day we'll look back and see that we could have improved a lot of things far earlier than we actually did," Sams said.

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