For too long CIOs have been able to duck the issue of IT's energy efficiency. Now, it's time to stop hiding and deal with it. Gary Flood reports
Forget 'green IT', meet 'greedy IT' - IT that's racking up bigger and bigger power bills, forcing CIOs to face the reality of what had been not just a hidden overhead, but one they'd cheerfully ignored. The reality is that power in the data centre is becoming more and more of an issue - fiscally and now legally too.
"Every week I meet CIOs who don't know what their power bills are or what it costs to run their infrastructure," says Aydin Kurt Elli, CEO of ISP and data centre services provider Lumison.
"We've been in effect running free for years, with the juice being paid for by our colleagues in facilities," adds Joe Baguley, European CTO of Quest. "The IT organisation has no visibility of those bills and so have no care or concern regarding power consumption."
As recently as 2001, says Tony Day, data centre projects manager for APC, "Clients were telling me not to waste time on this as the operational expenses were paid for the business, so just get on with building the data centre as quick as you can."
Now the chickens are coming home to roost, symbolised not by any kind of semi-sentimental move to reduce carbon footprint and save the planet, but by the imperfect, little understood but unavoidable compliance requirement in the shape of CRC, the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme.
CRC finally comes on line at the end of this month, but the IT industry has known for some time it needs to do a much better job than it has been doing about its thirst for electricity. Hence all the stories about the latest supplier data centre using ever more exotic techniques to clamp down on needless power consumption.
While researching this piece, for example, Capgemini opened the doors of its 'Merlin' data centre with a claimed PUE (power usage effectiveness, a key metric of efficiency) of 1.8 versus the average 2.5+, which relies mostly on external air to cool the kit and has a state of the art smart building climate management system and so forth. Meanwhile Chloride client Bluesquare's Tier 4 Milton Keynes facility is being upgraded to have 98% efficient UPSs, a move it claims will reduce electricity bills by a factor of seven. Not to be outdone, co-lo player The Bunker says that it doesn't even turn on the air conditioning half the year, as its site is underground, cooled by England's green and pleasant land itself.
Which is all great. But most organisations' computer rooms are in hot, stuffy basements, usually in big, crowded cities: they can hardly look to the local babbling brook or mountain air to lend a hand. And for organisations outsourcing ICT or renting space in a data hotel, there's another problem - it's not always clear who's paying the bill, even for any kind of more power-efficient environment.
Some suppliers will still expect you to pay utilities while others will absorb it, making one presume that if they save 5% of their load by adopting green data centre approaches, they're more likely to keep that quiet and add it to their margin than pass the savings along to you.
The good news is that now, at least, we're aware of the problem. We didn't want to be; it's the rest of the business, driven by a government that wants to cut carbon emissions by at least 80% over the next 40 years, that's made us face up to it. "The CFO will soon want to know about every kW of power coming in and where it's going, and CRC is ushering in a new climate of both awareness and careful monitoring of power," warns APC's Day.
"I tell clients that just because the power bill isn't a line item up front, that doesn't mean it's not a cost," says Jim Smith, CTO of data centre builders and operators Digital Realty Trust. "Over a ten year period the cost of powering and cooling your data centre will be about the same as building it - so that's literally millions of dollars."
But now the IT leader has a range of options to meet the 'greedy IT' challenge. These range from very simple, mechanical tweaks to the server room to more sophisticated approaches. Technology itself is also, to some extent, helping here - the boundaries have been pushed on efficient operations of data centre components like the air conditioning, batteries and so on.
Time to sound a warning. We are already pushing the envelope on some of this stuff - basic physics means we'll never have 100% efficient electromechanical devices. "A lot of data centres are very good at this already," says Day. "But many users haven't even started picking off the low-hanging fruit - it'll be a while before we are totally efficient as an industry, I believe."
"A 1% boost in UPS efficiency is great but really going forward it's going to be about better IT husbandry, about always looking to operate computing efficiently from the start of any project," says SunGard CTO Dave Gilpin.
But there still remains the problem that someone has to own and drive all this - be that the supplier of your outsourced IT or co-location partner or you as the CIO.
Let's dive down into what the CIO can practically do to curb power in the data centre. The first place to start is by adopting what may seem prosaically simple: put in some bits of bare metal. Welcome to your new friend the blanking plate, a very effective piece of rack furniture that helps contain heat so making half-full racks that much more productive. One supplier says it spent £250,000 doing that across all its square footage last year to help save customer power costs, for example.
Other approaches here include working on raising floors (to aid air flow as a cooling mechanism), 'hot' and 'cold' aisles (commonality of compute load so that servers doing similar work are clustered together and fans drive the best ambient air around for their benefit) and many other techniques that are really just a bit of careful janitor work. Literally - you need the old liquid used in many ACs, R22, drained and replaced as it's now illegal to use and has been superceded by better substances anyway.
Technology is the next level up. So, think the two 'ions,' here - densification and virtualisation. More blades in the racks are more efficient as they are fuller and thus work harder and more virtualisation means less physical servers to power and cool, either. Richard Blanford of virtualisation consultancy Fordway estimates a move to virtualisation will give the average client 40-70% power reduction, for example.
Plus, frightening as the idea may be in some cases, get the staff to work in their shorts. Running server rooms at higher temperatures is encouraged these days, as the basic equipment tolerance is that much higher and the computers are happier sometimes living in the Amazon than the Arctic.
Which raises that suspicion again that surely it'd be smart data centre business to maximise operational efficiency like this but keep mum about it to the customer, pocketing the difference.
We asked a few suppliers if they do in fact do that and got a range of answers. "No, we're not that deceitful or cunning," says Stephen Owen, enterprise solutions director of ControlCircle, a managed services provider whose customers include BetFair. "We charge the customer directly what power is presented to each rack per month. But we are also carefully monitoring usage, we are strict on hot and cold aisle containment and other approaches."
The majority say that if they do get increased capacity by re-organising the DC, they tend to pass that on not as a percentage cost in client bills but more as a common benefit of boosted capacity in the site for everyone. "Power is billed back, yes, but it's in our interests to minimise it as it's an overhead; we need to remain competitive," points out Rob Coupland, COO of TelecityGroup, which runs 23 data centres across Europe for clients like BT and Facebook.
The truth is it is in the commercial interests of firms like these to build better data centres using approaches like outside air cooling, modular structures to avoid empty space that needs to be cooled needlessly and so on.
The verdict has to be that it's time to be less greedy. Like any teenager, IT's been living off other people's electricity and resources for years and now it's time to pay our own way.
FUD meets the carbon footprint
No-one really understands CRC - but that doesn't mean we can ignore it. The idea is simple enough - help organisations save money by encouraging them to reduce energy consumption thus slashing bills but also saving the planet. The devil is in the detail. Firms have to monitor their usage and if they consume too much they will slip down published league tables, which is bad PR.
Only bigger electricity users should really be affected, with the top 5,000 public and private sector bodies the initial target, and there is a lot of scaremongering out there, judging by a tsunami of surveys saying the majority of firms are clueless about it. But as those likely to be affected need to register by September 30th or potentially face a £45,000 fine, it's time to get your skates on. It's been claimed getting CRC-ready can cost as much as £60,000 just for the compliance aspect, so CRC can't be ignored.