Ways to power an always-on world

October 3, 2012

–Cyrille Brisson is EMEA Vice President of Power Quality, Eaton Corporation. The opinions expressed are his own.–

A recent New York Times article suggested that most modern data centres are hugely inefficient — so inefficient, in fact, that they waste 90 per cent or more of the electricity that they take from the grid. If you are a data centre manager, your employment is directly linked to your ability to keep things running. In this context, it is understandable that the efficient use of energy has historically been a secondary concern for data centre operators.

However, this is changing. Increasingly stringent rules governing carbon disclosure are shining a spotlight on those businesses operating with insufficient regard for the grid and the power they draw from it. The rising cost of energy is also a powerful force for change. The UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently reported that average electricity prices for small to large non-domestic consumers rose by seven to 12 per cent[1] between 2011 and 2012.

When energy related costs can represent up to a third of a data centre’s operating expenditure, being energy efficient suddenly becomes a lot more attractive. Furthermore, savvy data centre operators recognize this is an area where they can derive significant competitive advantage.

The key to balancing the public’s demand to be always-on with the need to operate efficiently is being smarter about how we use power, both for the Information Technology and infrastructure side of the data centre  The infrastructure includes the supporting power and cooling systems which enable servers to run continuously.

Losses on the IT side arise from the way in which the computing, storage and networking are run in the data centre and a great deal of innovation has gone into ensuring that these losses are minimized, such as virtualisation, which allows the utilization of servers to increase dramatically. Overall, we should be using the same technology that operates within data centres  to control how we power them. That means intelligently applying power to the hardware that needs it, rather than pumping watts into every moving part.

In industry parlance, this is known as a modular system.  A central system constantly monitors power requirements and ensures that only those modules necessary to supply the load at any particular time are in service. The remaining modules are held in a low-power ‘ready’ state mode, but the system reacts instantly to changes in load level. This arrangement has two benefits:  The modules that are in service operate efficiently because they are highly loaded, and the modules that are in standby consume very little power. As a result, large energy savings are possible without compromising service quality.

It is a system that is at the heart at some of the most energy efficient data centres in operation in the world today. Data centres that are run as a business, that is to say third-party data centre providers and Internet companies, are trail-blazers in this regard, with many of the largest light years ahead of some of the worst practices cited in the New York Times article.

Iliad Datacenter, one of France’s largest data centre providers, applied a modular system combined with an intelligent energy saving system[2] to successfully boost energy efficiency at one of its sites from 92 per cent to 98 per cent.

Similarly, Facebook made energy efficiency one of its core aims when it began planning its new 300,000-square-foot Forest City data center in the US. Through intelligent design, and highly efficient uninterruptible power systems (UPS), it operates with a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.06 to 1.08, significantly lower than the industry average of 1.83, making it one of the most efficient data centres in operation in the world today. Facebook is currently looking to drive the same efficiencies at its data centre in Lulea, Sweden.

However, there is still much that needs to be done – in particular within data centres that are wholly owned and operated by individual companies, which represents the majority of the market. If we are to have the best of both worlds: an always-on society that doesn’t cost the earth (quite literally), then every organization that operates a data centre – no matter what the size – must take a more considered approach to how they power it.

[1] Statistics from the Department of Energy & Climate Change, June 2012: http://www.decc.gov.uk/media/viewfile.ashx?filepath=statistics/source/prices/qep341.xls&filetype=4&minwidth=true

[2] from Eaton

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