Many businesses have at least begun to take stabs at the cooling and heating problems in their data centres, even if only in the planning stage. But few are looking holistically at the data centre's entire sphere of operation to reduce the impact on the environment and the use of natural resources.

Some 800 buildings have been given the stamp of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a certification given by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) for the past decade to encourage the development of environmentally friendly construction.

Only two data centres have made the LEED grade thus far, with another six that have applications pending. Already LEED-certified are health insurance provider Highmark's 28,000-sq.-ft. data centre and mortgage provider Fannie Mae's 130,000-sq.-ft. data centre.

Jack Pouchet, director of green initiatives at Emerson Network Power, said businesses are just beginning to understand what embracing green practices means and the benefits that can be generated through environmentally friendly designs.

"You can have the most efficient data centre in the world and not be green," Pouchet said. "Green requires an end-to-end understanding and holistic view of the data centre, including site, surroundings, community, physical building, infrastructure, staff, building operations and maintenance." (For tips on how to attack the energy and cooling issue, read "Seven steps to a greener data centre.")

There is a cost

The cost to build a green data centre versus a "conventional" data centre is difficult to gauge. Estimates for the increased upfront cost of a green project range between three and 15 percent. But many green practices, such as more efficient servers, consolidation, virtualisation and enhanced cooling equipment are quickly becoming standard in data centre design, so the difference between the "green" vs. "traditional" costs isn't always clear.

Brian Cobb, senior vice president of IT at Fannie Mae, believes the cost to go green is minimal. "Technology has evolved to the point where you don't have to trade off environmental friendliness with costs," Cobb said.

"At the end of the day, we run the facility cheaper than if we had gone with a non-green design, and we believe the more efficient we build, the longer the usable life of the building."

Cobb estimates the data centre saves 13,000 gallons a day through the use of a rainwater collection system that also creates a stored supply adequate for three days operation in the event the public utility system is unable to provide water.

"We really didn't really engage in this as a 'feel-good' project," he said. "It makes business sense and helps us fit into the community."

Fannie Mae and Highmark will have company very soon, experts say. "This is not a passing phase," said Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at Gartner CIOs who do not invest "at least some effort" in green design and operations, particularly in new data centres, risk "seriously compromising" their positions, he said.

Unfortunately, many data centres still don't see the problem coming. While 38 percent of Computerworld readers surveyed say energy costs are becoming a bigger part of equipment life-cycle costs, 41 percent say they don't know how much energy their data centres use -- either because it's not metered separately from the rest of the facility or because it's not part of the IT budget.

"The IT industry is where the oil industry was 25 years ago," Kumar said. "We are the nasty players here. Much of what the industry has done in the past has served us well and provided a fantastic increase in productivity. The downside is we haven't paid any regard to efficiency and a balanced approach to environmental design."

Data centres are due

Kath Williams, a principle at Kath Williams Associates, an architectural firm engaged in green data centre projects, is a board member of USGBC and has served as vice chair for six years. She has seen a maturing of the LEED certification effort and believes data centres are the next logical step for green design and operation.

"Design teams can now look at complex buildings like data centres and laboratories and use LEED to really attack issues such as energy and water use," Williams said. "Society has become a lot more socially conscious about the environment. You don't have to be a tree-hugger, but corporations want to step up and say they are green. A finger has been pointed at big data centres, and businesses don't want to waste resources and pay more for utilities. There is plenty of motivation."

LEED certification comes by accumulating points through the implementation of green designs and operational procedures.

The Fannie Mae facility received points for being located within a half-mile of public transportation, and by providing bicycle storage areas, changing rooms, preferred carpool parking and refuelling stations for alternative fuel vehicles.

Half of the building's power is generated from wind farms, a renewable energy source. Requirements for artificial light were reduced by allowing daylight to be used as the primary light source in 75 percent of spaces, while 90 percent of spaces have an outside view. Lighting outside the building is low-intensity to reduce exterior light pollution.

Getting LEED-certified

Mark Wood, director of data centre infrastructure at Highmark, said up-front investment in gaining LEED certification for its data centre added about three percent to the development cost, but operational efficiencies will offset the investment.

"Everyone knows that data centres are power hogs, and one of our corporate strategies is to reduce energy use," Wood said.

Highmark collects rainwater in a 100,000-gallon tank, where it is used to flush the building toilets and serves as a backup water supply. Alternative transportation is encouraged with bike racks and parking for carpools and alternative fuel vehicles. The site selection was made to ensure the building did not harm environmentally protected lands.

Microprocessor manufacturer AMD is seeking LEED certification for an 870,000-sq.-ft. complex that will be used primarily by design engineers. The Lone Star Campus in Austin is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2008 and is located on a 57-acre site that incorporates the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre objectives for conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.

The layout of the buildings, garages and roads were made to minimise the impact on existing plants and water sources, and it uses 100 percent native plants to reduce landscape-watering requirements.

The campus incorporates a 1.1 million-gallon rainwater collection system that is used in the facility's cooling towers where an average of 150,000 gallons of water is evaporated each day. By supplementing the water supply with rainwater, the campus will save about 12 percent on its water requirements, or about 6.5 million gallons a year.

The Air Force's Offutt data centre

Williams, through her architectural company, currently is engaged in LEED data centre projects at the Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha.

The Offutt data centre is 188,000 sq. ft., making it one of the 25 largest data centres in the world. The Air Force requires LEED certification for all new buildings. The facility is expected to open in October, and in addition to handling compute requirements for the Air Force, the centre acts as the primary military weather agency in the country, supplying data for NASA.

The centre has a goal of reducing conventional water requirements by 30 percent, or as much as half a million gallons per year.

Part of the Offutt LEED effort began with site selection. The new data centre was placed adjacent to a closed runway, allowing the project to place parking on land that had already been paved, reducing additional landscape impact. If not used for parking, the old runway would have been torn up and likely buried in a landfill.

Another effort was in creating a furniture purchasing plan three years before moving into the data centre. This allowed the Air Force to spread the cost of buying new furniture across multiple budgets. The effort is expected to improve worker satisfaction, an important part of any green building project, she said.

Providing lounges, showers, changing rooms and other accommodations that improve the worker experience should always be top green priority, Williams said.

"Working in a data centre can be incredibly boring, or incredibly high-pressure," she said. "Either way, the employees need a break, and paying attention to the needs of the occupants and giving them some control over their environment, as well as a connection to the outdoors, are all important green concerns."

Taking out the trash

Some technologists have decided they can no longer turn a blind eye to the disposal of electronic equipment.

"The majority of electronic scrap generated in the United States is exported to developing countries, where materials of value are extracted in conditions that are extremely poor in worker safety and the balance is simply dumped where toxic materials leech into the environment. That is not environmentally sustainable, or sustainable in social responsibility," said Bob Houghton, president of Redemtech, an asset recovery company that guarantees none of the equipment or materials it receives will be sent overseas for harvesting.

Two groups trying to stop that practice are the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Health Care Without Harm. Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), a system of 42 hospitals, worked with the organisations to increase recycling and ensure that none of its products are shipped overseas, said Mary Ellen Leciejewski, ecology programme coordinator at the hospital.

"When we became aware of what was going on, we didn't want to be a part of that, and began looking at alternatives," she said. Since beginning to work with Redemtech in November 2005, CHW has recycled 9,200 computers, resold 2,000 computers and recycled nearly 200,000 pounds of equipment.

Enterprises should first see if they can reuse old computer gear somewhere within the company first, then resell what they don't want and, as only a last resort, try to recycle and systems or parts that can not be reused or sold, Houghton said.