IBM Greenlights Eco-Friendly Data Center Initiative

Big Blue’s Project Big Green is one of the most ambitious energy-focused IT offerings yet

Don’t dismiss talk about a potential "greening" of IT as just another example of marketing spin. IBM Corp., a leading proponent of data center greening, last week ponied up a different kind of green—$1 billion—to promote a new data center conservation initiative, "Project Big Green," across all of its business lines.

IBM joins competitors Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Sun Microsystems Inc. in promoting a new "greener" IT vision as well as in developing products to deliver on that vision. HP, for example, touts a range of "green" data center offerings—including its "Dynamic Smart Cooling" technology—that promise to reduce data center power and cooling requirements. Sun’s strategy is even more diverse, from its chip designs to its data-center-in-a-box offering, Project Black Box.

In all three cases, the hardware vendors are paying more than just lip service to going green. By pledging $1 billion to Project Big Green, at least one vendor has put an actual figure on the table.

Big Blue’s new effort will be spearheaded by a "Green Team" of over 850 IBM "energy efficiency architects." There’s a promotional angle to the initiative, too: IBM says its Global Site and Facilities Service unit will collaborate with six "Eco-System Partners" (including GE Consumer and Industrial and Schneider Electric) to help promote greening strategies.

Big Blue claims that Project Big Green—which neatly dovetails with both its mainframe and server consolidation sales pitches—actually evolved in response to client needs.

"The data center energy crisis is inhibiting our clients’ business growth as they seek to access computing power," IBM senior vice-president Mike Daniels said in a statement. "Many data centers have now reached full capacity, limiting a firm’s ability to grow and make necessary capital investments," Daniels continued, adding that Big Blue’s Project Big Green outlines IBM’s "action plan to make their data centers fully utilized and energy efficient."

In a sense, Project Big Green amounts to a five-step program to curb abusive data center power and cooling practices. The first step—that of diagnosis—has IBM holding the hands of organizations as they come to grips with their data center power and cooling issues and evaluate their existing facilities using any of several IBM-provided tools, including "Datacenter Energy Efficiency Assessments," "Mobile Measurement Technology" (for analyzing thermal data), and "Thermal Analysis for High Density Computing solutions."

The second step—the building phase—has organizations planning, building, or updating their data centers using tools such as "Energy Efficiency Self-Assessments" and "Optimized Airflow Assessment for Cabling." Big Blue also announced plans to develop preconfigured "Scalable Module Datacenter solutions," along with specialized facilities solutions to promote (and construct) "green" buildings.

Step three is the most obvious one: virtualization. Project Big Green calls for a healthy dose of the technology—consolidating workloads and driving up utilization by tapping a range of IBM platforms, including System z mainframes, System p RISC/Unix servers, and even high-density BladeCenter configurations.

Step four, too, is a no-brainer: Project Big Green also has a management component, utilizing Big Blue’s Tivoli management software, including such offerings as Tivoli Usage and Accounting Manager (which can help set power policies, track usage, and initiate chargeback strategies). In addition, IBM said, its Power Executive software technologies will be available for all of its server and storage platforms by November of this year.

Finally, Project Big Green has a cooling component. No surprise there, either. But Big Blue’s cooling strategy also includes a patented component—namely, a "stored cooling" solution (based on IBM’s Rear Door Heat eXchanger offerings) that Big Blue says can help improve the efficiency of end-to-end cooling systems.

Doubling Capacity but not Energy Use

Lest anyone take IBM for a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do leader, officials indicated that Big Blue plans to tap Project Big Green in its own data centers. In fact, IBM representatives claim, Armonk expects to double its computing capacity over the next three years without increasing its power consumption or its carbon footprint. In most cases, the company claims, customers can reduce their own power consumption and cooling costs by up to 40 percent.

"[This] is a way for us to help clients identify ways to significantly reduce their energy consumption in data centers by up to 40 percent," said Steve Sams, vice-president of Green Data Center Services for IBM, in a Web presentation last week. "It also provides them with a very simple metric that shows how efficient they are compared to best of breed."

Veteran industry-watcher Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, came away impressed by Big Blue’s Project Big Green pitch, which he says is much more than just a marketing gimmick. More to the point, King argues, Project Big Green amounts to one of the most ambitious green IT offerings to date.

"Enhancing energy efficiency is a subject dear to the hearts of IT vendor and customers alike," King says. "Vendors such as Sun Microsystems have leveraged clever marketing campaigns and innovative product designs to establish themselves as purveyors of eco-friendly computing solutions. However, until IBM’s Project Big Green, no vendor has attempted to get its head and hands around the complex challenge of improving data center power consumption end-to-end."

In this respect, King says, IBM is well-positioned to execute on its Project Big Green vision. "With some 38 million square feet of data center design and construction under its belt—30 million for clients and eight million of its own—IBM is in an ideal position to put its own considerable experience to work in Project Big Green," he indicates.

"In addition, the company is bringing these offerings to market at an ideal time, as ecological and practical issues are raising the subject high in the minds of consumers and businesses. Regardless of one’s opinion on global warming and related issues, continuing increasing demand for IT solutions paired with the steady rise of energy costs tangibly affects both the greater environment and company’s bottom lines."

Data center greening isn’t a trivial task, King concedes. For this reason, he maintains, Project Big Green differs from the eco-friendly pushes of Big Blue’s competitors. "[Greening] is best served by methodically pursuing and realizing incremental improvements across a range of areas and processes. In such scenarios, point products like low power processors and eco-friendly servers have their places, but they are merely players in what must be a much largerteam effort if it is to succeed," he says. "This is why IBM’s Project Big Green is likely to take root in the marketplace."

He cites Big Blue’s green-friendly hardware and software strategies, emerging green technologies (including Cell BE and "stored cooling"), and its new or enhanced data center assessment and management service offerings as cases in point.

Not that King sees Project Big Green as a slam dunk. "The role of storage in the program is less than clear, an odd point considering how rapidly growing storage assets impact enterprise power consumption. While IBM discussed the importance of virtualization in maximizing storage utilization, power-friendly solutions such as energy-efficient, low-speed drives and Information Lifecycle Management … strategies were ignored." King expects that IBM will clarify the role of storage in its Project Big Green vision, however.

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