A call to arms: IT must prepare for datacenter regulation

Datacenter operators must unite to prevent senseless regulations limiting CO2 emissions

Green IT has flourished in datacenters across the United States and beyond over the past couple of years, driven primarily by organizations' desire to cut costs on energy, cooling, new hardware investments, and facility expansion or construction projects. A new driver for honing datacenter efficiency is now looming, however, and datacenter operators should pay heed: Governmental regulation is coming, and the industry needs to prepare.

Such is the argument laid out by Mike Manos, senior vice president of technical services at Digital Realty Trust. Manos -- formerly the general manager of Microsoft's datacenter division -- argues in his blog that political leaders will soon shine a legislative spotlight on datacenters in the name of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to prevent global warming. "Whether you view this to be a good thing or bad thing, it's something that you and your company are going to have to start planning for very shortly. This is no longer a drill," he cautions.

[ Learn why and how IT can prepare for forthcoming carbon regulations. ]

Moreover, Manos makes the case that datacenter operators need to get involved now in helping develop the aforementioned regulation, unless pencil-pushers who don't understand datacenters crank out unreasonable or unsuitable rules.

Already we've seen governmental bodies paying special attention to the technology industry -- specifically datacenters. Manos points to the United Kingdom's Carbon Reduction Commitment, introduced as part of the Climate Change Act 2008. "The main purpose of the CRC is a mandatory carbon reduction and energy efficiency scheme aimed at changing energy use behaviors and further [incentivizing] the adoption of technology and infrastructure," Manos writes. "While not specifically aimed at datacenters (it's aimed at everyone), you can see that by its definition, datacenters will be significantly affected."

U.K. organizations can expect a carbon cap-and-trade system to be implemented in 2010. They'll face limits on how much CO2 they can emit. Companies that are able to produce fewer emissions than they're allowed will be able to sell their extra CO2 emissions permits to companies that can't keep their emissions within bounds. Organizations that fail to comply face fines (not to mention bad PR).

Why do datacenter managers specifically need to take heed? Organizations that consumed more than 6,000 MWh (megawatt hours) in 2008 need to participate in the program, and as significant consumers of energy, datacenters will not escape scrutiny.

"If you as a datacenter manager run a 500 kilowatt facility, you account for almost 11 percent of the total energy consumption," Manos notes. "[A]s data center managers, you are now placed in a position where you have primary regulatory reporting responsibilities for your company. No more hiding under the radar. Your roles will now be front and center."

The United Kingdom isn't the only country scrutinizing CO2 emissions. The Obama administration has expressed interest in instituting a carbon cap-and-trade system, for example. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy have taken a special interest in datacenters. Last year, the groups released a meaty report to Congress identifying strategies to cut datacenter energy waste; they also unveiled a software tool for diagnosing energy usage in the datacenter.

On top of that, the EPA is developing an Energy Star rating for datacenter infrastructure, of all things. Given the complexity of a datacenter, I can't help but wonder just how useful such a rating could possibly be. Devising Energy Star criteria for a single server proved a formidable task, and one that produced less-than-stellar results.

[ Learn why the Energy Star specification for servers falls short. ]

That, in fact, leads to one of Manos' driving points: Given that CO2 regulations are all but inevitable, and given that they'll impact datacenter operators, the industry needs to get involved as soon as possible to ensure that legislators don't come up with unreasonable one-size-fits-all regulations for datacenters.

"One of the items that came out during [a recent roundtable discussion] was how generally disconnected government regulators are from the complexities of the datacenter," Manos writes. "They want to view datacenters as big bad energy using boxes that are all the same -- when the differences in what is achievable from small data centers to mega-scale facilities are great. Achieving PUEs of 1.2x might be achievable for large scale Internet firms who control the entire stack from physical cabling to application development; banks and financial institutions, however, are mandated to redundancy requirements which force them to maintain scores of 2.0."

PUE (power utilization effectiveness) compares how much power your entire datacenter is using -- including servers, CRAC systems, and systems -- to how much of that energy is going toward computing tasks. A lower PUE means a datacenter is operating more efficiently, as the facility is wringing more performance per watt. A PUE of 2.0 would mean that for every two watts at the meter, only one watt gets to the IT hardware.

Notably, Urs Hölzles, Google's senior vice president of operations, responded to Manos, questioning whether banks were really stuck at a PUE of 2.0 for their datacenters: "With free cooling, following ASHRAE recommendations on cold aisle temps, hot air containment, and good UPS selection you can do *much* better than 2.0 with no compromise in reliability. So it's a myth that reliability and efficiency are in conflict. True, maybe you can't (yet) get bank-like reliability at a PUE of 1.2 but you can certainly reach 1.5."

Whatever the case, another one of Manos' key points stands: No two datacenters are created equal, and rather than leaving the development of datacenter efficiency guidelines in the hands of legislators, the industry needs a lobby group. The group's purpose would be to represent the interests of datacenter operators and to educate government bodies and regulatory agencies. The Green Grid, Manos notes, is forbidden by its charter to act in this capacity.

I concur with Manos that it would be in the datacenter industry's best interest to steer the feds away from regulations that are too restrictive (or too lax, for that matter) -- and rules that won't be based solely on PUE, which, in and of itself, isn't an overly reliable metric for measuring datacenter efficiency. Establishing such a group would, of course, require competing organizations to put aside self-interest for the greater good.