Energy saving ideas for smarter data center power

Data center power takes up a big chunk of the world’s energy consumption – and companies’ utility bills. What can IT do to improve data center efficiency? 

Across the world, data centers account for 30 billion watts of electricity used each year — equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants — according to a recent report on data center power from the New York Times.

On average, data centers run at only 6% to 12% capacity, meaning just fractions of the data center power consumed is actually used to perform useful computations — the remaining 88% to 94% is used by idling servers and extra capacity for spikes in need. And with the extra energy needed for cooling and back-up mechanisms, a typical data center can waste 30 times as much power as it needs to run basic operations, the report claims.

According to the report, low utilization rates are an unnecessary artifact of times when servers were more primitive and would crash easily if they ran more than one application.

As companies have begun paying more attention to the data center power they use and implementing energy saving ideas, regulators have also taken notice. No one agency has regulatory authority, but data centers have been responsible for getting companies hit with penalties for violating environmental regulations — in Virginia and Illinois alone, for example, at least a dozen data centers have been fined for air quality violations, according to the New York Times.

How efficient should data centers be?

Not everyone agrees with the New York Times’ alarm over the state of data center power. For example, Dan Woods of Forbes writes, researchers talk about data centers in general, putting the average company and Internet giants like Amazon and Facebook in the same category, even though their power needs and consumption are completely different.

Also, Woods writes, the article cites seemingly low utilization rates, but makes no argument about how much higher they should be. Any IT pro knows 100% utilization isn’t possible — and wouldn’t be advisable — and the ideal rate varies a lot depending on the purpose of the server.

Tips for more efficient data center power

Regardless of the validity of the New York Times study, most companies could benefit from more efficient use of power their data centers. In addition to lower energy bills, green IT can help businesses market themselves and avoid potential environmental compliance issues.

Here are some energy saving ideas companies can implement in their data centers:

  • Measure data center power use — In most small or mid-sized companies, the data center is a part of the general office space, which makes it hard to measure how much energy it uses. But if that power use isn’t monitored, it can’t be managed.
  • Turn up the temperature — Many experts say companies are too careful about how cool they keep their server rooms and could save a lot on data center cooling by raising the temperature a bit. For example, Intel announced earlier this year it had cut data center power costs by 67% after changing its cooling policies.
  • Virtualize and move to the cloud — Among other benefits, technologies such as virtualization and cloud computing can help companies save on energy and increase their utilization rates.
  • Cool with outside air — Some companies have had success cutting costs by cooling their data centers with air pumped in from the outside.

For more information, read our earlier post on the business value of green IT.

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