Dell outlined the steps it is taking to improve energy efficiency in servers, and has also detailed a server-refresh cycle that could help customers cut their long-term energy costs.

The company is fitting higher quality components into servers and pushing virtualisation to consolidate workloads that could help cut energy costs, Dell officials said in a meeting in San Francisco.

Historically, Dell has been known for selling servers for the cost concious IT manager. The company is now willing to trade-in the price advantage to offer high-quality hardware that can balance server workloads and cut energy costs. That will help customers save money compared to vintage and low-cost servers that are not designed to run critical data centre applications, said Rick Becker, vice president of software and solutions at Dell.

Though server prices may increase, the improved hardware can pay for itself in three years, said Albert Esser, vice president of Dell's data centre infrastructure group.

Instead of the typical seven-to-eight year refresh cycle, a two-to-three year cycle to upgrade hardware and service warranties could come into effect to take advantage of the latest server technologies, Esser said.

"It is very clear that refresh rates of three years ... the total cost of ownership is less than keeping your old machines running," Esser said. Old servers unable to distribute workloads could utilise excess power and lead to system administrators buying exponentially expensive servers to fill IT needs.

New servers can distribute workloads more effectively to reduce energy costs. Dell is trying to design its server hardware to take advantage of virtualisation, where workloads can be divided over a server sprawl to reduce overall power intake by a data centre.

"Virtualisation requires an awful lot of memory, but doesn't require an awful lot of CPU horsepower," Esser said. Dell plans to load two-socket servers with memory attachments typically found in 4-socket servers, Esser said. Similarly, four-socket servers will have memory attachments typically found in eight-socket servers.

To optimise data centre power intake, the hardware also needs be updated every two to three years, Esser said. Improved hardware with virtualised environments can pay back for itself in a span over three years, Esser said. Outdated hardware may be unable to handle advances in virtualisation and workload management.

"As long as you make your applications able to follow that improvement, the [hardware] refresh rate works in your favour," Esser said.

The company already ships products that are enabled for VMware, Microsoft's Hyper-V and XenServer hypervisors, a thin piece of software that unites multiple operating systems on a server and allocates resources accordingly.

Dell offers customers a blueprint of technologies that can be used in data centres to cut energy costs.

"We come in and show [customers] how to virtualise their data centre, then we get out of the way and let them save some money," Becker said. Dell also plans to leverage its website and the cloud to help customers manage virtual images.

Cutting energy costs also depends on balancing energy consumed by components like chipsets and fans. Dell plans to improve power management technologies bundled in servers, but declined to provide further details.

The company is also working with partners to make power supplies more energy efficient. Typically more efficient power supplies cost more, but Dell is trying to provide maximum efficiency at a cost affordable to server customers. As the energy efficiency of power supplies increases, the component's cost is mitigated by higher supply volumes, Esser said.

Dell is re-energising its data centre hardware development with a renewed message surrounding power efficiency and high-quality products, said Jean Bozman, research vice president at IDC.

The company is telling IT managers to be mindful and smart when addressing powering and cooling data centres during these tough economic times, Bozman said. According to an IDC survey in 2008, 21.8 percent of IT managers surveyed felt power and cooling as the top challenge facing data centres.