Designs on efficiency

Barry Mansfield finds that new power and cooling solutions and multi-core processing technology along with game-changing datacentre design is driving enterprise interest in energy efficiency.
Designs on efficiency
By Barry Mansfield
Tue 19 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

Barry Mansfield finds that new power and cooling solutions and multi-core processing technology along with game-changing datacentre design is driving enterprise interest in energy efficiency.

Datacentre operators will go to extremes to address the problem of an overheated server after the fact. A good case in point is the financial institution in the City of London that experienced a power shortage during an unusually hot day one recent summer, and found its ability to cool its servers and storage seriously debilitated.

They finally resorted to calling the fire department and having them hose down the outside of the building to cool it down," says IBM's Rich Lechner, the public face of a datacentre efficiency project called Big Green.

Miniaturisation, of which the BlackBox is one example, refers to a range of tools that are a product of science and R&D.

It was certainly an unorthodox approach, and probably not one to be recommended, but datacentre managers throughout the world are missing opportunities to use less power, Lechner and other speakers claimed in a recent panel discussion on datacentre cooling hosted by the Mass Technology Leadership Council (MTLC).

Datacentre energy consumption as a percentage of total US electricity use doubled between 2000 and 2007, with datacentres and servers likely to double their energy consumption again to 100 billion kilowatt-hours by 2012, at an annual cost of at least US$7.4 billion, according to Environmental Protection Agency statistics cited by MTLC.

The state of the Middle East

The trend is not limited to North America or Europe. With environmental damage an increasing concern worldwide - in the Middle East, leading politicians have become much more focused on green energy and efficiency - organisations feel motivated to reduce energy usage by commitments to social responsibility.

On a purely economic level, there are also the sky-high electricity bills to take into consideration. "Electricity is a huge expense," says Rasheed Al Omari, infrastructure consultant at HP Middle East. "It's not unusual for organisations in some parts of the world to pay more for electricity than they do for rent. In most geographies, businesses are really feeling the pressure to reduce their electric bill every month.

Whether the primary motivation is to save cash, protect valuable assets from damage or help save the planet, any organisation that sets out to build a power-efficient information technology infrastructure is likely to start by focusing on the datacentre.

Although it's not always the greatest source of IT power-inefficiency - sprawling estates of under-utilised PCs and departmental servers can be just as wasteful - the datacentre is the location where power-shortage issues are most likely to be concentrated and also, in many cases, where the most immediate potential exists for energy efficiency improvements.
According to Al Omari, there is now a growing realisation among IT managers in the Middle EAst that changes will have to be made. "A couple of years ago, cooling was not on the CIO's agenda here at all," he admits.

In the Middle East cost allocation has not been a problem historically. Most current datacentres are capable of dealing with 3-5kW per rack, or up to 10-15kW maximum. But high density computing calls for 30kW per rack. Statistically, two-thirds of the current sites globally are likely to have an issue with power or cooling. So even when price is no object, it really does restrict your ability to scale up the datacentre and grow.

What we are seeing now within the industry is that the engineering design teams are clearly focused on making each individual component draw less power and be more efficient.

Sun's response to worldwide demand has been to launch its BlackBox, a ‘datacentre in a box' that fits racks of servers, power and cooling equipment into a standard shipping container 8x8 wide and tall and 20 feet long. It has also developed an eight core processor.

As Basil Ayass, MENA product manager at Sun Microsystems, explains, "Miniaturisation, of which the BlackBox is one example, refers to a range of tools that are a product of science and R&D - tools that go hand in hand with virtualisation, enabling companies to consolidate, to do more with less. That's really what it boils down to." Ayass also reminds us that real estate is cheaper in the Middle East than in the US or Europe.

That's not an issue for business and power is also relatively cheap, as of course it's an oil-rich region. But we live in an extremely hot environment, with temperatures reaching 50 centigrade, so the heat emitted by a server becomes very difficult to manage. We've had to become aware of these issues much more quickly, as a necessity. In some respects we are much ahead of the curve.

Constructing a dedicated facility is an attractive option for those who can afford the upfront investment. For companies like Intel, Microsoft or Google, liberated from the need to tie themselves to a particular location, it is feasible to shift the function to a remote location - this might be somewhere where land is cheap and cooling fresh water in abundance, with plentiful supplies of inexpensive hydro-electric power.

However, it's not necessary to move to the banks of the Nile to benefit from greenfield sites. Tony Day, APC's chief rack cooling engineer, predicts that the energy-efficient IT infrastructure of the future will be stored in buildings that are as smart on the outside as they are on the inside.

They will, says Day, make more use of renewable energy sources to supplement utility power, and they will utilise passive technologies, including geothermal heat-exchange systems and double-layer envelopes, to reduce the need for mechanical cooling.
In the search for efficiency

In contrast with today's datacentres, which devour as much energy to cool themselves as they require to do useful work, tomorrow's eco-friendly datacentres will be vastly more efficient. The problem is that at an average price of $1,000 per square foot, a recent US study anticipates that a new datacentre will likely cost between $30 million and $50 million, a highly restrictive price even if a suitable site can be identified.

Another tactic that may allow businesses to garner improved power efficiency from their datacentres is the use of water cooling. In highly space-constrained datacentres where air flow is poor, the ability of one litre of water to conduct 3,467 times as much heat as one litre of air, while also demanding an order of magnitude less energy to be moved, is starting to receive more attention.

The energy-efficient IT infrastructure of the future will be stored in buildings that are as smart outside as they are inside.

For managers willing to take the plunge and re-introduce water to the high voltage world of the datacentre, vendors like IBM, Fujitsu-Siemens and HP now all offer water-based cooling for their server enclosures.

IT managers may also want to look into the possibility of replacing AC power supplies with DC systems. The drawback with this method is that, unlike water cooling - which can be installed rack-by-rack - a complete refit of the centre's power train will be necessary.

However, fans of DC say that it is more dependable than AC, generates less heat, and negates the 10% to 20% electricity overhead that is incurred every time DC current is converted to AC at the site. Cynics points out that a DC installation requires a more closely specialised set of skills, which can pose staffing problems.

Another impediment is that wide copper wiring is needed to carry the current - not all datacentres are able to accommodate this, though this will change in time.

Carrie Higbie, global director of datacentre solutions and services at Siemon, argues that "10Gbyte/sec capable copper and fibre are the latest infrastructure technologies and supporting these speeds and greater in the storage space will become the norm rather than an exception, in particular where redundant data is a concern.

The transition to new technology

Perhaps the greatest sea-change in energy efficiency, aside from virtualisation, has been brought about by the innovation of multi-core computing. John Coulston, Dell's marketing manager for the region, says there has been a great reception to the low voltage, quad core processors that the company offers in its energy smart servers.
Five years ago the industry was still using single core, multi-processor systems," he points out. "Just to put things in perspective, today you can buy a dual socket quad core server that has the performance of a four socket system from two years ago."

What's more, according to Coulston, intense competition in the processor industry will encourage vendors to focus more on increased efficiency and lower voltage in the years to come.

We're certain to see more advances in lower voltage technology in future," he says. "Dell's ninth generation servers offer 40% greater performance per watt than previous models, so just imagine the improvements we can expect to see going two, three or five years forward."

Dell recently demonstrated how huge the gulf can be in an experiment that pitted a series of three three-year-old servers, including an old Dell PowerEdge 2650, against a single new Dell 2950 running on a quad core chip. The modern system easily handled eight times the workload of the older machines. The 2950 had a striking edge when it came to energy consumption - it required just 440 watts, compared to an average of 2460 watts used by the older machines.

Coulston also points to recent innovations such as low flow fans and more efficient power supplies. "What we are seeing now within the industry is that the engineering design teams are clearly focused on making each individual component draw less power and be more efficient.

It's also good practice for vendors to put together a range of tools and professional services to offer customers case-study type insights from other users, so that they may draw on the experiences of others to design and build their centres in the most efficient way possible - that means from a layout perspective, as well as a technology perspective."

He says that Dell provides it customers with tools and power calculators to help them to understand how much power each rack - and the centre as a whole - is likely to consume in a range of scenarios.

Coulston's final prediction is that "with new blade offerings you'll be able to manage the blade environment and create temperature or performance alerts that enable you to achieve a snapshot of how your system is performing. That will continue to help businesses over the next five years.

The only certainty is that the need for energy efficient consumption is not going to go away and, so long as power considerations continue to influence their customers' behaviour and procurement policies, vendors will continue to dream up ever more sophisticated ways of making a difference.

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