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EPA urges efficiency, many data centers still far from it

Patrick Thibodeau | June 4, 2014
One large company is improving energy efficiency with aggressive server management.

The White House plan to cut carbon dioxide pollution by 30% seeks to meet its goals, in part, through efficiency improvements. This could put further pressure on data centers to improve efficiency, many of which are powering servers that are doing very little work or none at all.

For instance, a recent Uptime Institute survey asked enterprise data professionals: "What percentage of your servers are likely comatose?" About 60% of respondents said the number of comatose servers was under 5%. But nearly 25% put at least 10% of their servers were into that category.

The problem may be bigger than the Uptime survey indicates.

"Most data center operators can't even tell you how many servers they have never mind their utilization, so caution in interpreting those numbers is indicated," said Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University. "The percentages for comatose servers are likely much bigger."

The EPA plan to reduce carbon emissions is aimed at power plant generation, but it also includes overall energy efficiency a building blocks for reducing carbon emissions.

The coal industry may be unhappy with the EPA's plan, but one company, Johnson Controls, which makes environmental systems for buildings and data centers, issued a statement Monday saying it supports "the inclusion of energy efficiency and distributed energy systems" in the federal rule. The company pledged to reduce carbon and create jobs.

Many high-profile data centers, run by the likes of Apple, eBay and Google, already incorporate alternative energy into their power mix and all tout their overall efficiency. But the Uptime survey, from more than 1,000 enterprise data center operators and executives, suggest that a large number of data centers are wasting energy by running substantial numbers of servers that are doing nothing.

Managing underutilized servers and improving efficiency is not a simple task, as one large financial services company, Barclays, has discovered.

Barclays decommissioned about 9,100 physical servers last year, which represents about 12% to 17% of its total footprint. Those servers, in total, consumed 2.5 megawatts (MW), and Barclays has since become of model for the industry, recently cited by Uptime as the leader in the area.

Barclay's results, which are being repeated year after year, are part of a multi-year effort to develop a decommissioning process that considered the human element alongside the technology.

"What we learned was the biggest impediment to success was people's reluctance to click the approve button" on a change ticket, said Paul Nally, a director at Barclays, in an interview.

The path for Barclays began around 2009 after it acquired the North American operations of Lehman Brothers. There were duplicated systems and needed to be migrated.


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