Vendors try to turn down the heat

Sun and HP appeal to data-center managers with energy-saving servers, cooling systems

Add federal data centers to the growing list of government and business operations hit hard by rising energy costs. And add Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard to the list of manufacturers that see their products as a way to trim those costs and increase federal sales.

Federal data-center facilities — responsible for hosting Web sites, processing transactions and storing vast amounts of digital information — are continuously growing in density as they add ever more powerful miniservers.

In response, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is co-sponsoring a bill that calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to research the potential savings in electricity by purchasing energy-efficient servers for federal and business data centers. She told her House colleagues that in the next four years, the U.S. server market is expected to grow from 2.8 million units to 4.9 million units. For data centers, that’s a mixed blessing.

The upside is that the new servers perform better. On the other hand, their extra power eats up more electricity and produces more heat. And as data centers add additional miniservers, the result is a steep rise in electricity and cooling bills, already taking about $3.3 billion annually from federal and corporate coffers, according to House lawmakers pushing legislation to reduce server energy consumption.

A study of 50 data centers by market research firm IDC found that maintenance and administration costs accounted for 67 percent of data centers’ operational expenditures. IDC also found that data-center power density is increasing approximately 15 percent annually. In addition, the power that each server rack draws has increased eightfold since 1996.

Federal agencies and companies have been moving away from big mainframe systems to smaller systems, said Jed Scaramella, a research analyst at IDC. That has led to server sprawl because the data centers weren’t built to handle miniservers.

But if organizations pay attention to power use and cooling needs when they build data centers, they could save several million dollars in operating costs compared with maintaining the older centers, Scaramella said.

Some federal agencies have devised solutions to curb the energy problem. For the future NASA Shared Services Center (NSSC) at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, NASA plans to centralize the administrative and transactional systems that are now spread among its centers and headquarters.

“The consolidation of functions and services removes some of the energy requirements from our field centers,” NASA spokesman Doc Mirelson said.

Linda Travers, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Environmental Information, said the agency’s National Computer Center was designed and constructed to use approximately 40 percent less energy than a typical combined data center and office facility does.

Although agencies can add power units to an existing room to boost electric power, IT managers must reconstruct the facility from floor to ceiling to add cooling units. “You can always add more power, but the limiting factor has been the heat,” Scaramella said.

Server manufacturers are responding with supplemental spot power and cooling systems. Sun, for example, said its Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 compact servers can save millions of dollars in power and cooling costs over their lifetime because they produce three times the throughput of other servers using 30 percent less power, and they draw about as much electricity as an ordinary light bulb. Sun is marketing the products as the world’s first eco-responsible servers.

Bill Walker, a principal engineer at Sun, said Sun Fire’s advantage is in its chips. On traditional servers, half the chip is dormant — absorbing power and radiating heat without doing any real processing. Inside the Sun Fire T1000 and T2000, the whole chip can be active.

“In most cases, you’re doubling the output of the chip,” Walker said. “It’s working smarter, not working harder.”

“If I were building a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and I had that giant database that I wanted lawyers and vendors to be able to search through, that’s a perfect application for this chip,” he said.

HP has a host of distributed power and monitoring products designed to conserve energy. Data-center employees can remotely control power settings on the Web-based HP Power Manager. HP also makes a modular cooling system, akin to an air conditioning unit, that attaches to each server rack to increase cooling capacity as necessary.

Paul Perez, vice president of storage, networking, infrastructure and industry-standard servers at HP, said the Army and Navy are using the system in combination with other technologies to optimize their data-center power savings and reduce the risk of overloaded circuits.

He said the system has the potential to save between $10,000 and $20,000 annually, depending on the physical layout of the data center.

House bill asks EPA to research energy-efficient servers

Earlier this month, the House passed legislation calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to assess how much the federal government and corporate data centers would save in electricity costs by buying energy-efficient servers.

“Studies have shown energy-efficient servers can save up to 80 percent in electricity and cooling costs,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

Rogers co-sponsored the bill, which passed 417-4 and has gone on to the Senate for consideration.

“With 1 billion people online today and that number expected to increase by 3 million people each week over the next two years, it is important that we take action now to promote energy-efficient data-center technologies,” said David Douglas, vice president of eco-responsibility at Sun Microsystems.

“This [legislation] would serve as an important step in promoting more environmentally responsible computing for both government and industry,” Douglas said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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