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Consolidation alone won’t solve data centers’ energy problem

John Tomac

Government data centers work like any other factory. They produce something: in this case, the computer systems that power websites, manage payrolls and store vital information. They also have to eat up raw materials to do it: the electricity that runs those banks of computer servers and the air conditioning that keeps them from overheating and fizzling out.

Technology officials have set a bold plan to close or consolidate about 40 percent of the government’s roughly 3,100 data centers by 2015. That ultimately will produce $5 billion in savings, they say. The initiative so far, though, has focused more on reducing the number of data centers than on ensuring the centers that remain run as efficiently as possible.

As a result, the initiative may miss out on some easy savings and a chance to model good environmental practices. Energy is typically the most expensive component of data centers’ cost. They can consume up to 100 times as much power as a typical office building, according to the Federal Energy Management Program, a division of the Energy Department.

A May 2012 audit by the department’s inspector general found that 43 of its 77 data centers weren’t employing basic energy-saving practices, such as segregating server racks that need extra cooling from racks that can handle heat better to prevent wasting air conditioning.

The centers also weren’t optimally using perforated floor tiles that bounce cold air back up at servers, or special configurations that keep air flowing through servers rather than dissipating around the floor or ceiling. Even basics such as using motion sensors to make sure workers don’t leave the lights on when they go home, often weren’t in place, auditors said. The department could save about 16 percent on its electric bill by implementing these practices, they estimated. 

The greatest barrier to greening government data centers is misaligned incentives, says Gregg Bailey, federal competency director with Deloitte Consulting and former chief information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “In most cases in the federal government the people who run the data centers aren’t the same people who pay the electric bills,” he says. “That means there are no direct incentives. Even if [data center managers] want to be good citizens, they don’t know how. If they cut the electric bill in half, they wouldn’t even know it.”

Power bills for data centers and other buildings usually are managed by an agency’s facilities staff or outsourced to the General Services Administration, according to Bailey. As a result, consolidation plans, which are managed through agencies’ technology shops, tend to favor reducing real estate over boosting energy efficiency. 

The Energy IG report noted, for instance, that the department had not established energy usage goals, so managers didn’t have anything in particular to strive for.

The public face of the consolidation effort has focused almost exclusively on the raw number of shuttered data centers rather than on detailed metrics such as energy consumption. Agencies had shut down 318 data centers as of August. 

“The same issue has existed in the private sector,” says Stephen Minnig, a principal in Deloitte’s federal technology practice. “The difference is now about 20 percent to 30 percent of [data center] operators see those bills and that number is growing every year . . . That means they’re literally [incentivized] to save energy.”

Even when agencies make lowering their energy bills a priority, they’re often stymied by a lack of data. The Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations rate data center energy efficiency using a specially designed metric called “power usage effectiveness,” or PUE. Most legacy data centers don’t have PUE meters, which can be prohibitively expensive.

The Office of Management and Budget, which is leading the data center consolidation initiative, requires agencies to provide detailed reporting on energy use. As of September 2011, only four of 24 federal agencies had given OMB a full report, according to the Government Accountability Office. Seventeen more agencies provided partial energy usage information, GAO says, and three provided no information at all. 

Metering data centers can be especially difficult when they’re co-located with other agency operations, such as server closets inside standard office buildings. In those cases, agencies have to use sub-metering, which can be even more expensive. Another challenge has been whether to invest in metering legacy data centers that are slated to be shut down as part of the consolidation initiative, says Emily Stoddart, program analyst with Energy’s Sustainability Performance Office.

“We want to document a baseline for these data centers, but we’re wary of investing in a formal metering project,” she said during a June data center conference sponsored by MeriTalk.

Just because a data center isn’t effectively metered doesn’t mean there’s no way to gauge its energy use, says Mike Zatz, who manages a division of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, which certifies the most energy-efficient buildings.

Agencies can make educated guesses about energy usage simply by looking at electricity meters, he says. And, luckily, many of the processes that support consolidating data center real estate, such as upgrading to newer servers and virtualizing servers so they pack information more efficiently, are also good energy saving tools, Zatz says.

No agencies have approached Energy Star about advising them on their consolidation programs, he says. 

Energy Star’s data center division launched in 2010 and only one federal center has met the criteria so far. But Energy Star is a voluntary program, Zatz says, so some other centers might make the cut if they would apply. 

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