These days Andrew Fanara isn’t worrying about the massive amounts of electricity a big-screen TV consumes; he’s thinking about how electrical consumption in the datacentre is accelerating from the use of power-hungry servers and other network gear.

Fanara is programme manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Programme, which rates consumer appliances. He spoke this week at the AFCOM Datacentre World conference, where 850 datacentre managers and IT professionals tuned in to hear him talk about the government’s efforts to promote energy efficiency in datacentres.

Powering the datacentre

High energy consumption in the datacentre is creating challenges for IT managers. Here are some numbers to watch:

• Over the next five years, power failures and limits on power availability will halt datacentre operations at more than 90 percent of all companies, datacentre association AFCOM predicts.

• Between 8 percent and 10 percent of servers in datacentres have no identifiable function, according to Sun.

• Most datacentres already are well past the cooling capacity provided by raised floors, which is typically about 4kW to 6kW per rack, Sun reports. Racks above 12kW are probably blade-based and will require supplemental cooling.

• IT equipment consumes 50 percent of datacentre power, according to consulting firm EYP Mission Critical Facilities.

Electricity is the lifeblood of a datacentre, Fanara said. “Ironically it is the inefficient use of that energy that creates the challenges that many [datacentre managers] are facing in terms of running out of power, having to go build additional datacentres, incurring that cost, not utilising the IT assets as much as [they] probably would like to," he said. “All of that creates significant challenges."

Several sources confirm enterprises are struggling with jam-packed datacentres. A recent survey from storage vendor ONStor of 369 IT professionals found that 63 percent of organisations have run out of space, power or cooling capacity without warning. Further, at their current data growth rate, 43 percent of respondents said they could stay in their present infrastructure for only six months to one year if they changed nothing.

Those figures gibe with research from Gartner, which reports that 50 percent of current datacentres by 2008 will have insufficient power and cooling capacity to meet the demands of high-density equipment.

At the AFCOM event, Fanara pinpointed the electricity-gulping x86-based server as the first target of the EPA’s attention.

“Volume servers are probably the largest consumers of energy. They are not the most efficient in terms of their energy use and thus are the biggest opportunities going forward," Fanara said.

To help spell out just how much power servers draw, the EPA plans to develop - as soon as the year-end - Energy Star standards for servers that will let vendors test for energy efficiency and computing performance and brand their servers with Energy Star ratings, which were previously reserved for consumer appliances.

The EPA also will release recommendations for more efficient server power supplies. Between 1kWh and 1.5 kWh of power can be saved for every 1kWh saved at the plug, according to the EPA. The agency is working with a group called the Climate Savers Computing Initiative to develop power supplies that are 90 percent more efficient than earlier models and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54 million tons per year, potentially saving more than $5.5 billion in energy costs.

A test procedure also has been developed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit energy and environmental research centre, to verify power supply efficiency, reliability and performance.

Looking ahead, Fanara said the industry needs a means to measure the energy consumption of servers, storage and other network gear that takes into account not only the capability of the product but also its real-world performance.

That’s something the Standard Performance Evaluation (SPEC), an industry group that provides system performance tests, is working on. “SPEC is creating a power and performance benchmark, the first of its type, which measures server performance in a real-world situation," Fanara said. The EPA will review the benchmark for possible near term inclusion in Energy Star specifications, he said.

Real-world performance

Datacentre manager Jeff Allen also took the stage at Data Center World and talked about how energy consumption is limiting his ability to do his job.

Allen, who is technology operations centre manager at Georgia State University in Atlanta, recounted how he was asked by the university to host new applications on his network. To do so required Allen to add a new UPS and deal with an electrical generator that was running at maximum capacity and a 5,500-square foot datacentre that was maxed out on space and cooling.

"Our network operations centre, before we began the upgrade, was basically operating on numerous battery-style UPSes," Allen said. "There was no standardisation, no schedule for battery replacement and no maintenance contracts on many of them."

To solve the problem, the university invested in an integrated UPS and DC power system that uses flywheel technology, which is an alternative to chemical batteries and provides power during disturbances until generator power kicks in.

"We put in an Active Power 250kw flywheel and two Active Power CoolAir UPSs," Allen said. "We no longer have to replace batteries, there is no toxic or hazardous waste, and using compressed air and the flywheel gives off no harmful ozone or emissions."

Allen also installed racks that use 208V/30A power to lessen his energy costs. "By using the higher voltage 220 vs 110 power, we are reducing loss of power through the wires, allowing the hardware to run more efficiently because power loss has been reduced, which in turns makes us more energy efficient," he said.

To further address capacity, Allen is using virtualisation technology to reduce 150 Dell and Sun servers down to 10 physical devices. “We are running out of space in our datacentre, and we don’t have enough power to drive more servers," he said. “Virtualisation will help us with that."

Banishing energy parasites

Jack Pouchet, director of green initiatives for Emerson Network Power, told attendees there are some very simple, but often overlooked, ways to save on energy in the datacentre.

“Datacentre horror stories are amazing and would make great comic books," Pouchet said.

He named a number of things where enterprises typically go wrong, such as using perforated tiles on raised floors in a hot aisle, which allows cooled air to infiltrate. Other examples include failing to use blanking plates in racks where servers or other network gear don’t exist, which lets hot air blow into cold aisles; and keeping the lights on 24/7 in a datacentre.

"We ball-parked 250 to 300kW of energy savings we could get from the generator room, the lighting, the environmentals for the security system, the fire suppression system - things that were superfluous or parasitic losses," Pouchet said.

"These parasitic losses are things that are not core to your operations, they don’t support the servers, they don’t keep them running, they don’t keep them cool, they don’t process data, they don’t process storage."