November 2009

Energy Efficient Servers

Are energy efficient servers a hot topic (or is interest cooling off)?

By: Kelly Fitzpatrick

Servers are now eligible for a star – an Energy Star that is.

But according to an article called “Energy Efficient Servers Earn a Star (But So What?)” that ran on last June, many observers don’t expect it to change how enterprises will be buy servers anytime soon.

The Energy Star certification, which went into effect on May 15, doesn’t necessarily give the full information on energy efficient servers and their energy consumption, with current specifications measuring energy use “only under limited circumstances and for specific types of machines.” The article brings up Blade servers as an example of a server that doesn’t currently qualify as an energy efficient server.

“This is a great first step. It’s been important for some time, given the power issues of the data center, to give transparency on the energy use of servers,” says Subodh Bapat, Vice President and engineer in the Sustainability Office at Sun Microsystems Inc.

Considering this is an area known for its high electricity usage, the EPA is getting props for helping folks identify energy efficient servers but if more exact figures are needed on servers’ electricity bills, folks will have to still down their own testing to find more energy efficient servers.

The EPA has been working towards more energy efficient servers for years due to the amount of energy a data center uses, and are continuing to work with the server community to find ways to make energy efficient servers better.

Right now, the server specifications “measure whether a server’s power supply has good efficiency across a range of workloads.” says Austin Hipes, director of field engineering at Network Engines Inc. (NEI), a Canton, Mass.-based appliance maker.

“We wanted to take the platform and standardize the information, to unlock some of that transparency, so people who buy servers, whether they buy one or two at a time or they buy them by the hundreds or thousands each year, can all benefit from what we’re doing,” says Andrew Fanara, an Energy Star program manager in Seattle. “It’s also designed to give buyers an “apples-to-apples comparison between servers.”

But how energy efficient servers are is just one factor in what determines how a company buys a server. Performance and reliability are also considered.

Jill Eckhaus, CEO of AFCOM, an association of data center professionals, is also mentioned in the article as saying data center managers will look for energy efficient servers as part of overall corporate green initiatives, but if the energy efficient servers don’t do the job required, that label won’t help close a sale.

But in the current economy, all of this energy efficient server talk may be a moot point because many companies are just making due with what they have.

“Buying energy efficient servers can help reduce power consumption. And from a perspective of greening IT, this will certainly help with awareness,” says Doug Washburn, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. “But most IT shops aren’t investing in new equipment right now.”

Still, energy efficient servers and an Energy Star ratings will have some sway with enterprise IT managers, according to Washburn in the article. Citing discussions he’s had with clients, he says, “They will go with more energy efficiency if all other things are equal — even if it’s a little more expensive.”

A move the EPA would want and according to Energy Star’s Web site, they are already beginning development of Tier 2 requirements for computer servers.

“As part of Tier 2, EPA will be investigating methods with which to evaluate energy efficient servers while completing actual computing, transitioning the program from the current foundation developed for the Tier 1 specification.”

Still with the factors of the economy and improvements needed for qualification for energy efficient servers, many companies are trying to improve energy efficient servers. According to the CDW’s Energy Efficient IT Report for 2009, IT professionals can save up to $1.5 million a year if they took the right steps in adhering to an energy efficient workplace.

The report surveyed 752 IT professionals from across the country and there was an increase across the board in their active participation in making the workplace more energy efficient, except as mentioned earlier in purchasing decisions. Cost, reliability and compatibility with existing equipment took precedence over energy efficient servers.

Most common green practices found in the study included buying energy efficient servers with low power/wattage processors, using network-based power management tools, using software tools with uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) to monitor power demand and energy use, monitoring data centers remotely to keep lights off when employees are not on site, managing cable placement to reduce demand on cooling systems and implementing server and storage virtualization to reduce the number of servers and storage devices drawing power.

One snapshot of how energy efficient servers can help is documented in the report was that of The Brooking Institution. The company converted its 40-year-old mainframe computer room into a modern data center to accommodate “contemporary computer needs.” Ways the new data center reduced energy costs include using blade servers and increasing use of low-wattage processors, removing the old subfloor cooling system and using an in-row cooling system with sensors to monitor and spot-control cooling efficiently based upon equipment input air temperatures, integrating new data center cooling systems with the central chilled water cooling plant, increasing efficiency over the entire facility and removing the old cooling system that served the data center only. Lastly, they took advantage of tools such as their utility’s energy audit, EPA’s free “EZ GPO,” which enables central control of power management on desktop PCs and monitors and a similar tool to control printer power management.

The report cites that the data center measures alone reduce energy use by an estimated 450,000 kWh, cutting associated carbon emissions by 447 tons and save an estimated $58,000 a year, all by using energy efficient servers and other Energy Star rated equipment.

Another company taking green initiatives and energy efficient servers to heart is a bit more well-known. Google has a five-step plan on efficient computing as practiced by their company on

  1. Minimize electricity used by servers.
  2. Reduce the energy used by the data center facilities themselves.
  3. Conserve precious fresh water by using recycled water instead.
  4. Reuse or recycle all electronic equipment that leaves our data centers.
  5. Engage with our peers to advance smarter energy practices.

Google admits it’s just a “starting point” but they’re committed to being carbon neutral as a company and are always looking for ways to make the services they provide more sustainable. When referring to how efficient their infrastructure is currently they’re obviously doing their part.

“Google-designed data centers use about half the energy of a typical data center. As a result, the energy used per Google search is very small; to be precise, we currently use about 1kJ (0.0003 kWh) of energy to answer the average query.” Energy efficient servers seem to be proven here.

Energy efficient servers may not be the right path for everyone for now, but it’s a great first step and there are many other ways your company can contribute to making your IT department more energy efficient.