Q&A: Greener Data Centers

Faced with rising energy costs, IT is looking for greener alternatives. Could Iceland play a leading role?

In 2010, data centers consumed more than 1.5 percent of total electricity usage, a figure that is rising, forcing data center and facilities managers to look at power-efficient and alternatives. Greener data centers are now a must.

To learn more, we contacted Tate Cantrell, chief technology officer at Verne Global, which operates a data center campus in Keflavik, Iceland. Mr. Cantrell will be leading an end-user session, Greening Efficiency in Power Management, at Data Center World, September 30 through October 3, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Enterprise Strategies: With growing data and processing demands, many data centers are approaching the limits of available energy. Are there measures/metrics about how fast this problem is growing and how many more data centers will be affected in, say, the next year or two?

Tate Cantrell: Data centers of today are under increased pressure due to the scale of growth that we continue to see in the Internet at large, but more specifically in the growth of traffic on the mobile platform. In 2009, mobile networks handled about 1 percent of the traffic on the Internet; today, over 10 percent of the Internet passes through mobile networks. In developing markets such as India, that share jumps to more than 50 percent of the total Internet on mobile devices. With only a third of the world's population active on the Internet, we should expect to continue to see rapid growth in traffic and in overall data development.

More important than mobile’s rapid growth is that mobile means business, and mobile means growing revenues and growing efficiencies for enterprises and industries that may not normally be seen as technically savvy. The nature of mobile, cellular networks requires that today’s applications must be developed with true resiliency in mind -- resiliency that relies on back end data centers to process, store, and analyze the data generated by literally billions of new mobile points in the burgeoning data universe. With over 2.5 exabytes of data coming online every day, the requirements of today’s data centers can only grow as time moves forward. With more data and more capacity comes the requirement for more energy, ultimately drawing data centers and data center developers to the sources of reliable, stable, and )where possible) renewable energy.

How prepared is the power grid in the U.S. to deliver the increased power requirements data centers need? What about in other countries?

Traditionally, data centers have been located close to the switching networks from which data centers were traditionally reliant. This proximity has created large data center markets that are very close to population centers. As both population and data center power demands grow, regional energy pressures will create environments where the power grid cannot easily meet the demands put upon it You can start to see this happening in traditional U.S. data center hubs such as New York, northern Virginia, and the Bay Area. Where this really becomes critical is in places in both the U.S. and Europe that have to meet surges in power demand and must do so on an aging power grid.

That is one of the things that attracted Verne Global to Iceland. There is an abundant supply of renewable energy delivered over a modern power grid that was recently developed to serve power-hungry, industrially-sized industries such as the demanding aluminum smelting industry. We are able to offer our customers an optimized combination of location, economics, and ecological consideration for large-scale data center implementations -- 100 percent dual sourced hydroelectric and geothermal energy, year-round free cooling, as well as protection against escalating worldwide power pricing.

Many IT organizations see shifting to the cloud as an energy-reducing strategy because cloud providers can utilize resources more efficiently. Does such a move help reduce energy needs overall?

Yes, because cloud providers have the ability to centralize and innovate in a way that improves efficiency on a scale that an individual company may not have the resources to do on their own. Cloud providers can locate their data centers where power grids are most robust in terms of capacity, where climates cater to free-cooling, and where sources of energy are not solely dependent upon coal. They can also work closely to optimize their peak load opportunities to maximize their power usage throughout the day or, in some cases, throughout the world.

Why is going green the preferred solution to other approaches, such as building additional nuclear power plants?

A4: In the case of Verne Global, we have found that it just makes good business sense. Today, data centers no longer have to be tethered to the population centers that they serve. Companies are empowered to segment their business applications and choose platforms that match technical, financial, and sustainability goals that are set forth for each application. In our case, access to Iceland’s abundant supply of competitively priced, renewable energy resources means that we are able to offer our customers the opportunity to go green without paying a premium. With less than 20 percent of Iceland’s indigenous hydroelectric and geothermal energy potential tapped, our customers have a truly green data center alternative that is a viable business solution that will scale for years to come.

Many green initiatives, such as solar and wind power, have been criticized as not being ready for prime time -- for example, they don’t produce enough kilowatt hours or are too expensive. If that’s the case, what practical, cost-effective solutions are available to IT today?

Fortunately for Verne Global’s customers, power generation is not an issue. Iceland’s power grid is 100 percent powered by renewable resources with gigawatts of untapped geothermal and hydroelectric capacity. This means there is still plenty of opportunity for growth for us in Iceland from our renewable energy sources. Iceland has high-capacity, resilient network connections to Europe and North America.

Where is the greatest progress being made in making data centers green?

Although the industry as a whole has acknowledged the challenges data centers face in terms of environmental impact and power, the Nordic region has shown the greatest commitment to renewable resource adoption as a power source with Iceland, Norway, and Sweden in particular leading the way. According to Pike Research, investment in greener data centers is expected to experience rapid growth over the five years to 2015, increasing from US$7.5 billion in global revenue to US$41.4 billion, representing 28 percent of the total data center market. That’s real progress and a sign that the industry is committed to change.

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