Turning up the heat

One of the most significant contributors to an organisation’s energy consumption is IT, and the data centre in particular. The Carbon Reduction Commitment (or CRC Energy Scheme) has made it more important than ever that data centres are built to a high specification for maximum energy efficiency. The UK’s first mandatory carbon trading scheme, it affects around 5,000 organisations, and is compulsory for large organisations using more than 6,000 MWh/year of half-hourly metered electricity—or around £500,000 in electricity bills.

Under the scheme, businesses must measure and record energy use and calculate carbon dioxide emissions. They are then required to purchase carbon allowances to cover these emissions. In April, the first auction will take place in which bidders buy allowances which cover their 2010 emissions, and their forecast 2011 emissions. A ‘league table’ will then be published annually, once businesses have reported their carbon emissions.

Functions across the entire business are likely to be affected by this scheme, so companies must look at their carbon output for all departments, from marketing, logistics, human resources, finance and production to legal and regulatory affairs.

The Easynet Energy Centre at Schiphol-Rijk (The Netherlands), which has been operational since October 2008, was a major challenge to construct. The live environment already in place had to be transformed into a data centre that would achieve maximum energy efficiency. We managed to reduce CO2 emissions by 1,726 tons per year—comparable to the amount emitted by 191 standard households. Even so, this is just the beginning. The company is a strong advocate for intensive collaboration between data centres, energy suppliers, software and hardware vendors and businesses with the aim of reducing carbon emissions.

Much of the energy efficiency at the centre comes from the intelligent free cooling technology, which uses low outside temperatures to cool the equipment. This effective utilisation of outdoor air in the cooler months is supplemented by efficient coolers and hot-aisle and cold-aisle containment. Equipped with four generators (N+1), three running continuously when the normal energy net supply fails, the data centre remains operational for 66 hours after a power cut on its immediate available fuel supplies and if needed, continuously, covered by a suppliers’ contract for fuel.

We advocate more openness in the market on ways to increase energy efficiency, arguing that energy efficiency and lower emissions ultimately benefit everyone. But this can only be attained if all chains collaborate perfectly.

In the Netherlands, Easynet plans to sign the Multi-Year Agreement on Energy Efficiency (MJA3). The signatories include the Dutch government and ICT users and suppliers (e.g. IBM, HP, Microsoft), as well as such key partners as Telecity and SARA Computing and Networking Services. One of the agreements in this public-private commitment is to cut energy use by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2020. Ironically, we can make a major contribution to this commitment by raising data centre temperatures.

The temperature in parts of the Easynet data centre is currently kept at 21ºC. After consulting with customers, ambient temperature in over half of the data centre has been raised to 26ºC. Hardware vendors now guarantee that current equipment will continue working properly at 26ºC or 27ºC. Effective operation at higher temperatures makes an enormous difference to cooling-based power consumption, especially in the warm summer months. Servers and other equipment have now reached a standard of quality that completely eliminates the need to overcool data centres.

But is the market ready to turn up the heat in data centres? For instance, how does this work for managed hosting? Here, all the hosting activities are handed to a company that uses a data centre and monitors the equipment itself, without customer intervention. The customer signs service level agreements (SLAs) with its hosting provider to assure continuity and availability, trusting that applications will run and the data is safe. The temperature and infrastructure is not an issue for the customer, as long as applications keep running according to the agreed SLAs.

Who is responsible when the temperature is five or six degrees higher? The data centre owner should not take full responsibility in such a situation. Hardware vendors should also take responsibility, for example by modifying their warranties to include continued operation at higher temperatures. Software developers should also make their products more effective. Why should every single application load when a computer boots up? Why not only load the required applications to save CPU (central processing unit) power consumption? If that principle would be applied to operating systems all over the world, the amount of energy saved would be phenomenal.

The energy delivery chain in a data centre, from building entrance to CPU, could also be improved. The data centre electricity mains brings in AC current from the energy provider, which is converted into DC current to continuously charge the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) once it reaches the data centre. Switching back and forth from AC to DC current is hugely inefficient. Further research is needed to investigate how these transformation processes could be skipped and made more efficient. Servers that run on DC power already exist; why is this not the industry standard? In line with its commitment to increase energy efficiency, Easynet sees a need for further discussion and collaboration with all those involved.

Today’s technology is sufficiently advanced to make energy efficiency and carbon reduction a real option. The gaps have been identified, but more must be done. Data centres play an important role already and with the rise of modern communication needs, driven either by interpersonal communication or by machine to machine communication, their roles will grow more imminent over time. Data centre operators cannot make those changes happen on their own, nor can they eliminate power-hungry equipment or single-handedly curtail the energy that is lost.

This issue requires a more proactive approach, and it is high time to stop pointing fingers at others and starting getting things done. Pursuing industry collaboration and establishing agreements are crucial for achieving effective change.

Ben Timmer is head of Data Centre Management, Easynet Global Services