Consolidation alone won’t solve data centers’ energy problem

John Tomac

Server banks can consume 100 times as much power as a typical office building.

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. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.