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Environmental targets compromise data centre operations

Are the UK’s largest companies bearing the brunt of misguided carbon reduction policies?
That’s the question being asked by Mark King, Director of 2bm (pictured).

Mark King

When town centres and office buildings still blaze with light at 2am, why are businesses being asked to invest in unproven strategies for reducing carbon consumption? CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment) Energy Efficiency Scheme targets are nothing more than a distraction. Of course, organisations should be looking at key areas of energy consumption, such as the data centre. But the emphasis should be on understanding costs, operational performance and risk. Investing in data centre monitoring tools is a good strategy but not simply to meet random carbon targets. Data Centre Managers should be using these tools to identify the servers in a data centre that are redundant; to automatically and remotely switch equipment into sleep mode at weekends, or to eliminate expensive downtime through equipment failure.

A shift in focus is required. Organisations need to exploit real time data centre monitoring to improve operational efficiency, reduce energy consumption and minimise the risk of downtime to reduce costs. CRC compliance will be achieved by default.

Given the fast declining global power resources, a commitment to carbon reduction was a compelling policy for a government presiding over a booming economy several years ago. Now, with companies fighting to stay in business, the CRC requirement, which came into force in 2011, is actually distracting companies from key issues, such as improving data centre operational performance and minimising expensive down time.

Today, organisations with power consumption in excess of £500,000 per annum must comply with the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme requirements and the vast majority (95%) of organisations are now on board – although proposed financial penalties are not due to come into force until later this year, if indeed they come into force at all.

The 2011 league table shows that over 60% of organisations have taken action by installing smart meters and obtaining a certificate for ‘good energy management’ from the Carbon Trust or other accreditation scheme. But what does this mean in practice? In reality, some believe this has offered the temptation to avoid making changes to improve energy efficiency prior to the regulation coming into effect to ensure, for the first year at least, that simple, quick changes can be made to meet reduction targets.

This attitude flies in the face of any real commitment to carbon reduction. But it also raises a huge issue surrounding the relevance of environmental targets when companies should be focusing on operational performance and efficiency. It is great news that organisations are improving metering, especially in the data centre, which is a significant area of energy consumption. But are these organisations leveraging this insight to gain real, operational benefit?

By emphasising the importance of carbon reduction and forcing organisations to prioritise this area, the government has distracted these businesses from addressing the key issues of the day – namely improving performance, reducing costs and minimising the risk of downtime that can damage reputation, lose customers and compromise business viability.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has slammed CRC as adding to business costs, and the reasons are clear. CRC is too narrow; it fails to take into account all the other contributions to carbon, such as business travel and its objectives do not reflect the current business climate.

Of course, data centres are a massive contributor to carbon creation. But they are also the hub of any business operation. Surely efficiency, good performance and minimal downtime should be the focus – not making ad hoc attempts to reduce energy consumption by plugging-up holes between cabinets or switching off fans without understanding the implications? And yet this is the situation facing the majority of organisations. Without understanding energy consumption across the data centre, companies cannot make good decisions. For example, how many Data Centre managers recognise that turning down the air conditioning within the data centre to increase the temperature from 22°C to 26.5°C will result in some servers automatically turning on all three fans on each server, as opposed to the single fan required at 22°C?

The result is that whilst turning off the air conditioning reduces consumption by 400 Amps in a 1000 server data centre, the additional fans demand an extra 1000 Amps. The net result of increasing the data centre temperature is an additional 600 Amps. The strategy, in this case, is flawed.

There are clearly huge opportunities for reducing energy consumption and cost within a power hungry environment.

However, without accurate insight into energy consumption at rack/cabinet level, Data Centre Managers cannot manage power consumption effectively; they cannot track spikes in demand, identify the least efficient devices, the servers that are redundant yet still consuming power, or reliably assess the potential value of new, theoretically more efficient technologies.

Nor can the business exploit technology that can centrally manage energy consumption, remotely turning off lights in empty rooms, for example, or reducing the CPU usage or fan speed on a server that is not being used. Using such tools in combination with real time monitoring will dramatically reduce an organisation’s energy consumption. Critically, with such monitoring in place, organisations have early warning of potential problems – such as an air conditioning leak – that could cause downtime.

The world is running out of power at the same time as demand is spiralling. Of course, something has to give. But is CRC really the answer? Some of the world’s largest companies are exploiting in depth, real time understanding of their operational fabric – from data centre equipment to building facilities – to achieve fantastic reductions in energy consumption. But for the rest, the sheer pressure to meet CRC requirements is clouding the issue, distracting Data Centre Managers from the key practical and operational concerns that are central to effective data centre operations. Organisations need to focus on saving money and improving performance – with the right approach, carbon reduction commitments will be met by default.

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