Data centers show signs of 'green fatigue'

Success stories from cutting-edge firms such as Google and Microsoft are causing a backlash at less capable data centers

A new survey from the Uptime Institute suggests fatigue is setting in when it comes to making data centers greener, and it may be partly due to overachievers like Google and Microsoft.

In the Institute's latest survey of data center operators, only 50 percent of respondents in North America said they considered energy efficiency to be very important to their companies. That was down from 52 percent last year and 58 percent in 2011, and is despite a constant drumbeat of encouragement to reduce energy costs and cut carbon emissions.

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The decline in interest was more pronounced at smaller data centers, which tend to have fewer engineers and less money to devote to energy efficiency projects, said Matt Stansberry, Uptime Institute's director of content and publications.

"A lot of these green initiatives, like raising server inlet temperatures and installing variable-speed fans, are seen as somewhat risky, and they're not something you do unless you have a bunch of engineers on staff," he said.

But there may be other factors at work. Stansberry suspects that managers at smaller data centers are simply fed up hearing about success stories from bleeding-edge technology companies such as Google, and their survey responses may reflect frustration at their inability to keep up.

"I don't really think that half the data centers in the U.S. aren't focused on energy efficiency, I think they're just sick of hearing about it," he said. "You've got all these big companies with brilliant engineers and scads of money, and then there's some guy with a bunch of old hardware sitting around thinking, What the hell am I supposed to do?"

The gap in enthusiasm reflects a divide between large and small data centers that is apparent in other areas too. Data centers with more than 5,000 servers are far more likely to have invested in new infrastructure and expansion projects, he said. Smaller data centers, meanwhile, are maintaining existing facilities and moving more work to online service providers and collocation facilities.

Those service providers and colos are also the ones investing the most in going green, he said. IT energy costs make up a big part of their overall operating costs, so "every penny they save is profit," he said. Other companies, including big retailers and manufacturers, see less incentive to improve efficiency. For some, reliability and security are a bigger priority.

There was also a division along geographic lines. Interest in green IT was higher in Asia and higher still in Latin America -- particularly Brazil, where energy costs are high. The interest may be lower in the U.S. partly because energy here is relatively cheap, Stansberry said.

The survey was completed by about 1,000 respondents at data centers worldwide, though predominantly in the U.S. Nearly half the respondents manage three data centers or more, and they were a mix of facilities staff, IT staff and senior executives responsible for both areas.

Other results show that building data centers in a modular fashion has been slow to catch on. The survey defines modular equipment as that which is manufactured off-site and delivered ready for installation, which allows mechanical and cooling equipment to be added in stages to match the IT load. Less than 1 in 10 respondents said they were using prefabricated, modular components, and more than half said they had no interest in doing so.

The results of the survey are being presented Tuesday morning at the Uptime Institute's 2013 Symposium in Santa Clara, California. The Institute runs the data center reliability tiering system and advocates for energy efficiency.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's email address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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