Creating a Greener Data Center

REDMOND, Wash., April 2, 2009 – It wasn’t long ago that corporations gave little thought to the energy consumed by data centers – those warehouses of humming computer servers that today drive retail commerce, manage payrolls, forward e-mails and much more.

Tighter budgets and rising energy costs make those days seem positively Jurassic. Some data centers dwarf a football field and can cost more to build and power than the IT services they support. Today data centers consume about 2 percent of U.S. power generation. Now, everyone from the CFO to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is interested in a data center’s footprint—economic and environmental.

There need not be a choice between the environment or an economy where data centers play a key role, says Christian Belady, principal power and cooling architect for Microsoft Global Foundation Services group.

Several trends drive data center power consumption. As computers become cheaper and more capable, more people own computers – and use them more for data center-driven tasks. The IT industry’s shift to cloud computing also drives consumption, as data centers will play an increasingly vital role in powering our digital lives.

Fortunately, the future doesn’t mean a choice between environment and economy, said Christian Belady, principal power and cooling architect with Microsoft’s Global Foundation Services (GFS) group. “Cost and sustainability are one and the same,” he says. “We’re extremely fortunate to be in an industry where lowering cost and being green are synonymous.”

The GFS team is helping Microsoft and the industry find the intersection of cost and sustainability. Until now, businesses and companies have largely focused on optimizing the cost of their IT equipment. Now, data center operators and architects are examining every phase of their power use. Microsoft is doing the same, squeezing efficiency from hardware and employing software that optimizes server performance.    

Today, Microsoft’s power consumption is between 30 and 50 percent lower than the global industry average for traditional data centers. “We believe that it is important to track and monitor the power usage effectiveness (PUE) across all of our data centers, no matter how small or how old, in order to truly understand how well our data centers are managed and to allow us to make the right business decisions,” says Arne Josefsberg, general manager of Infrastructure Services for GFS. “When you’re managing an infrastructure of hundreds of thousands of servers, it is essential that you run it efficiently.”

“When you’re managing an infrastructure of hundreds of thousands of servers, it is essential that you run it efficiently,” says Arne Josefsberg, general manager of infrastructure services for Global Foundation Services.

That push for efficiency comes just in time. For years, the amount of energy consumed by data centers grew at a rate of 15 percent per year, Belady says. Some of Microsoft’s newest data centers span more than 10 times the size of a football field, and roughly half that space is taken up by chillers, generators, and other support equipment for the servers. Just one of Microsoft’s fully loaded data centers draws approximately 40 megawatts. To put that in perspective, a typical house draws about one or two kilowatts, Belady says. “That’s somewhere around 20,000 to 40,000 homes. Data centers draw a lot of juice.”

That fact has brought data centers to the attention of the EPA. Although Belady has called for efficient computing for more than a decade, he said the industry as a whole began to take it seriously only since January 31, 2007, when the EPA organized a conference about efficiency in data centers. The EPA started to focus on the problems through its Energy Star program, which is managed with the U.S. Department of Energy to help companies and individuals save money and protect the environment by making it easier to identify energy-efficient products, practices, and buildings.

Companies were encouraged to benchmark their buildings and see how much energy they were using. What they discovered was that data centers had become most company’s most power-hungry facilities, says Andrew Fanara, who helps to manage Energy Star for the EPA. “A light bulb went on. People started to realize that if you’re not looking at data centers, you’re missing the biggest opportunity to make your campus more efficient,” he says. 

Fanara says Microsoft has taken a leadership role in tackling the problem, such as efforts to re-think the way it charges for IT use. “In the past, our data center costs were allocated by the space the servers occupied, and that drove denser server design,” Belady says. “Now we charge by the power the servers use, so people are buying more efficient servers.” As soon as the program was implemented, the average server power in Microsoft’s data centers went down, he says. 

Microsoft continually measures availability, performance and power use across its data centers to ensure it makes the right power and performance tradeoffs. “Everything in that facility has to be manageable—from the supply chain to the servers to the network—and it has to be built to operate with great processes every day,” Josefsberg says. “Furthermore, you need to apply technology innovation for efficiency in architecting services as well as through breakthrough technologies such as virtualization,” he added.

Some of Microsoft’s newest data centers, such as this one in Quincy, Washington, are more than 10 times the size of a football field.

The move toward efficiency is underpinned by a deeper shift in thinking. “We talk about energy as a resource, water as a resource,” Belady says. “We really need to think about computation as a resource. When you do that, things start to look differently.” That thinking will drive the next generation of data centers. In the old days, servers would run full power 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and never throttle down. Now, Microsoft is thinking about how to smooth out demand for computational resources so that “we’re not as peaky,” Belady says.

The “Generation 4” data center of tomorrow that is being developed by the Microsoft Data Center Services team will be built more like a Model-T than a typical building.

Today, it takes a year and half to build a data center’s infrastructure before the first server is delivered. In the future, data centers will be modular, scalable, and “just in time”—manufactured in a facility, put into containers, and then delivered by truck wherever they’re needed. This plug-and-play model would enable the infrastructure to scale with business demands, help reduce upfront capital investment, and drive down costs and energy use. In many respects, they will be more capable of accurately mirroring the scale of the cloud-computing services they support. “As the economic climate changes, your computing infrastructure needs to follow the clouds,” Josefsberg says.

Before those trucks start rolling, Microsoft will continue to focus on optimizing efficiency in its data centers through investments in efficient power and cooling systems, optimizing server designs, and keeping a close eye on daily power use. The company is also looking at tricks such as aggressively using outside air to cool servers, and working with vendors to expand the operating temperature range of servers, Belady says. That could provide a huge efficiency boost by eliminating chillers.

Finally, smart site selection will also help determine where data centers can be built in places where they can have a smaller carbon footprint, such as outside regions that rely heavily on energy resources such as coal. Data centers will remain at the heart of the digital world, but these efforts will make their footprints in the physical world a whole lot greener.


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