May 04 2011

Green at Every Step

It's the first data center consolidation goal listed in the administration's IT reform treatise: "Promote the use of green IT by reducing the overall energy and real estate footprint of government data centers."

It's the first data center consolidation goal listed in the administration's IT reform treatise: "Promote the use of green IT by reducing the overall energy and real estate footprint of government data centers."

Although the 25-point plan is about far more than power and cooling in data centers, taking advantage of energy efficiency is a driver in the federal consolidation movement. Consider that by adopting virtualization alone, a facility can shave hundreds of dollars per server off of its total cooling bill each year. Given the vastness of many federal enterprises, that can add up to real money pretty quickly.

In the Veterans Affairs Department, we seek to squeeze every last cent out of our energy efficiency efforts. Yes, we want to run our IT facilities smartly and improve utilization of our infrastructure, but we also have another driver. Our primary data centers are franchise fund operations, functioning under a 100 percent chargeback for operational costs. Our users — our "customers," in essence — expect us to run these data centers efficiently and transparently. That requires collection of cost and expense data at far more granular levels than the typical appropriated facility can provide.

As a result, power management has become another tool in the data center optimization toolbox. But improving it doesn't happen overnight; that's an ongoing process.

Adding Up the Savings

Power management systems continue to improve and help agencies establish greener IT operations. Even so, there is no single tool or approach that will deliver dramatic improvements. Rather, there are many incremental steps, each of which can contribute to energy savings. So what does that really mean? No matter the size of your facility — from a server closet of 200 square feet to a full-scale data center of several thousand, using the definition in the Federal Data Center Consolidation

Initiative — there are things you can do to drive down energy consumption.

Some incremental improvements taken at VA are cutting-edge, such as the use of solar panels to produce power, while others are low tech. But each is effective. Here are some examples:

  • Install a centralized cooling system to replace any distributed computer room cooling systems.
  • Add a 17,000-square-foot solar array to produce 125 kilowatts of power.
  • For more pointers from federal IT leaders on greening data centers, watch our FedTech video at

  • Implement efficiency improvements to overhead lighting. Or better yet, operate in a "lights out" mode when possible.
  • Improve power distribution so that the facility can operate at 150 watts per square foot rather than 75 watts. This lets VA consolidate IT equipment within the existing infrastructure, extend the life of the data center and avoid new construction costs.
  • Tap alternate energy sources. Many utilities let customers use electricity generated by wind, solar or biomass, which helps reduce pollutants and decreases the overall carbon footprint.
  • Upgrade power distribution units to devices containing high-efficiency transformers. At VA, this resulted in an estimated $50,000 savings per year, or 648,000 kWh per year at one data center. Multiply those savings times each national data center planned and that's not only savings to taxpayers but enough electricity to power dozens of homes.
  • Increase the temperature in the data center from 68 to 72 degrees, which can reduce the cooling requirement by as much as 15 percent while keeping equipment air-inlet temperatures within manufacturer specifications. Even midsize data centers typically have million-dollar electrical bills, so this would reap substantial savings.
  • Install new Energy Star–compliant computer room air conditioners. These save VA approximately $3,000 per year, or 39,000 kWh.
  • Refresh uninterruptible power supplies with high-efficiency UPS modules to save $25,000 per year, or 324,000 kWh.

No single up­­grade is a magic energy elixir, but the overall savings can be impressive — and enviable.

<p>Photo: Martin Adolfsson</p>