The Green Data Centre – Myth or Reality

Every few years, core IT infrastructure issues surge into visibility on the corporate radar. Often, they are then energetically discussed for a while, before drifting away into the background as more immediate challenges grab the organisation’s attention. The green data centre and power consumption is a good example of this. It gathers attention, gets talked about in the press, and then fades into the background as it is too easily taken for granted. But a recent survey by Freeform Dynamics highlights that while the green data centre isn’t a revolution gathering steam, power efficiency from a purely economic point of view is gathering pace – and environmental concerns are becoming a very visible challenge. Perhaps for the first time, green IT is not just riding on the coat-tails of economic savings. The survey asked what initiatives were actively driving change in mid-size to large UK-based organisations. The current fashion favourites business modernisation and digital transformation are clearly active or have planned projects in around three out of four organisations. And business process outsourcing is also still attracting attention (Figure 1). Click on chart to enlarge Such responses are hardly unexpected, and the same could be said for the very large numbers who report keen interest in ‘efficiency and cost savings’, those perennial favourites of executive boards ever since businesses started being audited and subject to investor pressures. What is surprising is the fact that carbon footprint reduction initiatives are underway in over a third of organisations, with nearly as many more planning something. Less than one in ten stated they have no carbon-reduction activities or plans, a much smaller number than in the recent past. Unlike in previous years, I suspect that most of these positive reports are not just politically correct answers being given to toe the corporate line. Indeed, it is clear there is a linkage between cost saving, energy efficiency and carbon footprint reduction: together, these are key pressures forcing data centre change. Data centres have taken significant steps in recent years to limit the power they consume. X86 server virtualisation allowed IT services to be delivered using fewer kilowatts, and now storage systems are undergoing similar consolidations, initially to optimise resource usage but with an impact on electricity consumption too. Some organisations have also looked beyond basic server and storage systems into how the data centre itself is architected and operated. Popular techniques include free air cooling, hot and cold aisles, and running systems at higher operating temperatures. Such projects can require significant capital investment and considerable time spans to show returns, but they are happening. And these optimisations are needed, not just to ensure that operational running costs are optimised, but because most data centres are now routinely challenged to run more and more workloads. IT is doing more for the same power bill. Not only is that good for the IT and business budget, it can be especially important where power supplies may be limited, a matter of no small concern in many locations. Alas, while these pressures are obvious and the benefits tangible, it can still take something going badly wrong to turn initiatives and ideas into budget funding (Figure 2). Click on chart to enlarge The fact that severe service interruption is still such a strong trigger for change is worrying, as the survey also shows a clear correlation between organisations that are high achievers, and data centre improvement initiatives around carbon footprint and power consumption. The survey asked respondents how well they were delivering against key indicators on an IT performance scorecard. This identified a group of high achievers the survey report labelled ‘Top IT Performers’, and such organisations are far more likely to have programmes in place to improve energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprints (Figure 3). Click on chart to enlarge While the report does not claim a causal relationship between good IT performance and that ‘green initiatives’ basket of better energy efficiency, carbon footprint and other environmental considerations, there is an obvious correlation between them. More importantly still, Freeform Dynamics has an abundance of other research that shows similar onward correlations between good IT performance and business success. What about Cloud? Some evangelists claim ‘Cloud’ to be the solution to all IT challenges, including power consumption. But it should be recognised that while cloud solutions are good options for some workloads, they are not the best for everything. Considerable research by Freeform Dynamics and many other organisations, as well as experience of the real world, shows that the majority of organisations plan to combine IT running in their data centres with solutions provided from external cloud suppliers (Figure 4). Click on chart to enlarge The Bottom Line A decade ago there were evangelical cries that data centres must become more green, but economics put a brake on many idealistic schemes to improve data centres’ carbon footprints. However, today that same economics, combined with advances in technology, more sophisticated energy management systems and new ways of designing and operating data centres, makes greener IT almost an inevitability, especially as most data centres are not going to be replaced by the cloud anytime soon. But data centres are becoming greener, almost of their own accord. As one data centre infrastructure manager told me: “Most of the pressure for energy efficiency and transparency comes from investors rather than regulators. It’s all about being able to show your social responsibility credentials.” Perhaps for the first time, the need to demonstrate social responsibility is adding thrust to the drive to make data centres more power-efficient and to reduce carbon footprints.
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Tony is an IT operations guru. As an ex-IT manager with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, his extensive vendor briefing agenda makes him one of the most well informed analysts in the industry, particularly on the diversity of solutions and approaches available to tackle key operational requirements. If you are a vendor talking about a new offering, be very careful about describing it to Tony as ‘unique’, because if it isn’t, he’ll probably know.