Six habits of highly efficient data centers

Organizations are raising the bar for energy efficiency with free cooling, DC power, modular data centers, and better collaboration

Data center operators don't bandy the word "green" around as much these days compared to a couple of years ago. That doesn't mean companies have abandoned projects aimed at boosting energy efficiency while making better use of their IT resources, both for the sake of slashing operating costs and reducing their environmental impacts.

Research Company 451 Group has put together "Highly Energy-Efficient Data Centers in Practice," a comprehensive report that examines six green practices embraced by a swath of organizations to drive down data center operating costs. Some of these practices, such as approaching data center planning holistically and finding alternatives to traditional cooling, may be familiar to readers who've followed the InfoWorld Green 15 awards over the years; others, such as embracing DC power and pre-fabricated data centers, may have simply gone unnoticed or been dismissed as unsustainable.

Data center operators would be well served to consider or reconsider these trends as they plan improvements to their facilities. Not all of these practices are suited for every organization, naturally, but you never know until you look.

Practice No. 1: Take an integrated and holistic approach to efficiency
Data center operators need to tackle efficiency holistically via a combination of integrated technologies and approaches rather than dealing with projects in isolation. This isn't an especially groundbreaking concept: The Green Grid has been pushing the "think holistically" mantra since its inception in 2008. One of the best ways to do this is to promote collaboration among departments, particularly between facilities and IT, to ensure that all players are on the same page when it comes time to make data center improvements. Woe to the IT guy, for example, who orders a new rack of high-end servers for a mission-critical project only to learn once the boxes arrive that the data center doesn't have sufficient power or cooling to support the hardware.

The collaboration doesn't end within an organization, either. Companies are becoming increasingly open with one another as to their once best-kept secrets for reducing energy waste. One of the best-known examples out there is Facebook, with its Open Compute Project, through which the company is open-sourcing the blueprints to highly efficient servers, racks, and cooling equipment.

Practice No. 2: Be smarter about cooling
Data center operators are gradually understanding that their facilities need not feel like a meat locker to be properly chilled. Understandably, no IT admin wants to risk equipment failure (and thus his or her job) from overheating. However, if you're spending 50 cents on cooling and power for every dollar you spend on IT -- the traditional ratio for the average data center -- you're almost certainly throwing away money.

There are several ways to reduce cooling costs, some of which represent technologies organizations have been loath to embrace for fear of damaging valuable hardware. Among them is liquid cooling, which is perceived as creating maintenance issues and has been historically restricted to limited sets of applications. One form of liquid cooling comes from Green Revolution Cooling, employing a low-cost dielectric fluid that is non-contaminating and reportedly has 1,200 times the heat-retention capacity as air.

Speaking of air, free cooling, which uses outside air to chill machines, has enjoyed broader adoption than liquid cooling. The concept is straightforward: Set up your data center somewhere with consistently mild outdoor temperatures. Then use an air-side economizer to draw on outside air to cool the facility. The economizer then pushes the hot air outdoors. Companies are increasingly amenable to embracing free cooling. Microsoft, for example, is adding 112,000 square feet to its existing 303,000-square-foot data center in Dublin -- and the expansion will rely entirely on air-side economizers.

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