Q&A: Best Practices for a Greener Data Center

What technologies and best practices can make a data center greener?

Are green IT initiatives being driven by cost savings or environmental concerns? What technologies can make a data center greener? We explore these and other “green agenda” issues with Richard Muirhead, CEO and founder of Tideway.

Enterprise Strategies: Has the recent global crisis among financial institutions impacted the approaches to green IT projects and data center transformation? For example, are companies now looking to green IT initiatives more for potential cost savings than environmental benefits?

Richard Muirhead: While the environmental benefit of going green is rewarding in itself, financial and business continuity incentives are a substantial motive as well. There has been a growing demand from companies for data center transformation and green IT initiatives to help them cut costs, make their data centers lean, and meet escalating energy requirements. Industry analysts estimated that 70 percent of data centers will experience a disruptive incident related to space, power, or cooling by 2011. In the next five years, most U.S. enterprise data centers can expect to spend as much on energy as they do on hardware infrastructure.

Considering the money that many companies are already wasting on unused or obsolete hardware infrastructure, the combined expense could be massive. The increase in IT purchasing and high level of M&A activity in recent years has left many organizations with surplus and duplicated infrastructure hardware, software, and other data center assets. Data center electricity costs are already in the range of $3.3 billion annually, and IDC reported that the number of servers in the United States is expected to jump 50 percent over the next four years. This surplus wastes valuable money, space, and resources.

How can technologies such as automation, virtualization, and cloud computing help companies reduce costs and run a more efficient and greener data center?

Automation, virtualization, and cloud computing technologies let companies do more with less. Infrastructures today are shifting their focus to virtual machines (VMs) and cross-server optimization rather than just new features and processor speed. By leveraging these techniques, companies can turn their physical data center structures into virtual and shared components, improving their efficiency while freeing up much needed space and resources. They can maximize their IT assets while they remove wasteful infrastructure from their data center floor and cut back on energy and cooling costs.

In fact, earlier this year, Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) found in a survey of 627 participants that virtualization benefits for enterprise IT managers include server consolidation (73 percent), reduced hardware costs (69 percent), lower system administration costs (50 percent), reduced data center floor space/rent (48 percent), and reduced software costs (34 percent). The Climate Group’s “Carbon Down, Profits Up” report shows that 43 companies have already saved an aggregate $11.6 billion by reducing greenhouse gasses and becoming more energy efficient through such tactics.

In lean economic times, enterprises need to invest in solutions like these that speak directly to the acute need to quickly cut costs and manage operational risk while following the green trend that has become so important to companies’ reputations.

Are power and space requirements and restrictions accelerating green IT agendas?

Demand for data center space has grown 12.5 percent worldwide in the past year, according to Tier 1 Research. During the same period, the inventory of available space has only increased by 4.2 percent. This has created a major crunch as companies scramble to control server sprawl, rein in costs, and manage the environmental impact of their data centers. As a result, many executives are considering data center relocation, consolidation, hardware replacement, and virtualization technologies to help consolidate space within existing data centers. However, before they start down this path, they need detailed insight into what exactly they have in their data centers and what the dependencies are between these resources and the business processes they support. Once they’ve mapped out all their assets and corresponding inter-dependencies, they’ll be able to understand how to circumvent increasing power and space restrictions.

Will we see more companies invest now to ultimately cut costs in the long run?

Companies today have a unique opportunity to rationalize and optimize their data centers and ensure continuous efficiency improvements and cost savings for years to come. The rapid pace of change and innovation in the technology industry suggests an almost continuous process of observation and intervention to keep data centers up to speed. There is an ongoing business need to renew data center infrastructure to ensure IT can continue to support the business in these increasingly challenging times.

How does automated discovery play into a green IT project?

By employing automated discovery and dependency mapping tools, companies can keep pace with dynamic data center requirements while preparing for future infrastructure and application updates. Not only is this an easy way to stay on top of emerging technologies, but it’s also cost effective and will save companies money in the long run by revealing and avoiding possible duplications, optimizing space, and preventing unnecessary purchases. More and more companies will start putting these practices into effect now so they can ultimately capitalize on significant cost savings and gain the breathing space in their IT budgets they need to innovate while going green.

The first step a company needs to take in a green IT project is to determine what an initiative will actually entail. This means discovering what their data center really contains, what is being under-used, what is not being used at all, and how everything is connected. Until companies have an accurate picture of their IT infrastructures, it will be too expensive to find opportunities to "green" their data centers, and too risky to implement them.

Should IT approach green IT from a facilities-centered approach or look more closely at real supply and demand issues?

Companies should approach green IT by looking at the supply and demand issues of their data center assets. Those resources that require the most energy and those applications that are business critical and/or revenue generating should be top priorities, while those applications that are receiving high levels of energy unnecessarily can be further down the list. Discovering which business applications are in high demand creates opportunities to consolidate those that aren’t. By devoting resources and energy to business applications in more direct proportion with their importance to the company, costs and carbon emissions can be significantly reduced.

What gets in the way of IT companies implementing a green agenda?

Due to the sheer size, complexity, and pace of change, many IT organizations do not fully understand what they have in their infrastructure, what it is doing, and how it is being used to support the business. This lack of visibility and transparency means companies often find it easier to buy new equipment than to share or redeploy what the business already has elsewhere -- idle or under-used. This results in inefficient data center resource planning -- where far more infrastructure than necessary is deployed. The more infrastructure a company has, the more daunting an IT transparency or transformation initiative becomes, so companies are more likely to put it off than to initiate the greening of their data center, despite the costs savings.

How can understanding what you have under the hood bring you closer to a greener data center and ultimately help reduce an organization’s carbon footprint?

Although the majority of software in our data centers is working hard, a significant proportion is considerably underused or not used at all. Industry analysts estimate that 20 percent of overall IT software costs can be credited to “shelfware,” and about 4 percent of infrastructure software in Global 2000 enterprises remains unused. Furthermore, between 2.5-5 percent of servers running in the data center could be removed with no impact on the business whatsoever. The Uptime Institute also found that most enterprises have up to 30 percent obsolete, decommissioned servers in their data centers that are no longer in use but are still consuming valuable power and energy. Each of those servers costs money and produces carbon emissions that companies could have otherwise avoided.

By employing automated discovery and dependency mapping tools, a company can get to the core of their infrastructure to see which applications are linked to which servers and where they can consolidate servers or duplicate assets. According to The Climate Group, the largest global financial services firms have carbon footprints in the region of 500,000 tons of CO2 per year, and a firm’s IT electricity consumption can be responsible for up to 65 percent of that total. This total could be significantly reduced by going into the data center and removing any idle applications and unused hardware. Understanding what is going on under the hood can help companies substantially reduce emissions and cut back on associated negative environmental impact.

What are the biggest mistakes that IT companies make in implementing a green IT agenda?

When IT companies attempt to implement a green IT agenda, they often overestimate the amount of change that will take place and underestimate the amount of time and effort involved. It is a constant balancing act between green efforts, governance, risk management, and profitability, so organizations need to go about it strategically and measure progress along the way. The biggest mistakes stem from companies that are too ambitious with insufficient planning and strategy. They often find themselves expanding massive effort that either doesn't work or puts profitability at risk, and is consequently abandoned altogether.

How does Tideway fit into this market?

Our flagship offering, Tideway Foundation, automatically discovers and maps complex data center assets and applications. It provides a complete picture of all physical and virtual IT assets, including servers, software, applications, and switches, as well as multiple types of inter-system dependencies and relationships across all technology layers. It also aggregates critical hardware reference and software end-of-life data traditionally spread across multiple vendors and asset management systems, so an enterprise can analyze power consumption statistics for business applications, view their carbon footprint, and ensure end-of-life, unsupported software is not being used in production applications from a single platform.