How to Green Your Data Center Without a Forklift

Several low-impact moves can yield high-impact savings in energy.

By now you've heard so much about green IT that you're likely tired of it. You already know that your operation can't afford to replace its data center. In fact, your budget can't support anything new that doesn't have an immediate payoff. On the other hand, a dramatic cut in energy costs would help your budget.

But what about all those interesting green IT solutions you keep hearing about? You know that you can buy servers that are much more efficient than the machines you've had in your data center for the last couple of years. You also know you can spend money on licenses so you can virtualize your environment and make better use of your servers. But even though all that gear will pay dividends in energy savings down the road, you don't have the money to spend on it.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to cut your energy consumption for maximum impact and with minimal attention and effort. Even better, some of the most effective areas of energy savings don't involve expensive new servers and upgraded cooling.

"The No. 1 thing to look at is the cooling side," said Kevin Brown, vice president of global data center solutions for Schneider Electric. "Look at your airflow patterns and look at whether you're getting efficient distribution of air. Look under the raised floor."

Brown said that air flow blockages and inefficiencies are perhaps the biggest waste of energy in data centers. In data centers with raised floors, this can mean problems like missing tiles or wrongly placed air vents. But it can also mean that there's junk under the floor that's keeping the cooling system from working properly. To wit: "I found a Christmas tree under a data center floor," Brown said.

A major goal, added Brown, is to eliminate as much cooling as possible. "If they do a really good job cleaning up their airflow, they might be able to start turning off their CRACs [computer room air conditioners]. That's the low-hanging fruit," he said.

Making sure your AC is fully loaded is one way to save significant energy in the data center, said Daniel Golding, vice president and research director of Tier 1 Research. "If you have two running at 50 percent, it's better to have one at 100 percent," he said.

Golding added that most data centers are overcooled. "Simply raise the temperature of your data center," he said. "The idea that you need 60-degree data centers is completely inaccurate. The idea that you need it below the level of human comfort is inaccurate-80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit is fine."

While the idea of a warm data center may be anathema to some IT managers, the fact is that modern equipment is designed to work in an environment with input air temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Golding also suggested using outside air where possible so you don't even have to run the AC. He pointed out that there's no science to support the widely held belief that outside air, with its pollution and dirt, will damage computer equipment "unless maybe you're in China or L.A."

Lex Coors isn't so sure he agrees with Golding about simply using outside air instead of air conditioning, but he agrees on a lot of other things. Coors, vice president of data center technology for Amsterdam-based Interxion, runs co-located data centers for companies around the world. He said that some of the most effective steps are also some of the easiest: "closing the air leaks in tiles, walls, doors, putting blanking plates in cabinets."

Coors also said that a dramatic improvement can be gained by the installation of hot aisle and cold aisle containment-the process of keeping hot and cold air from mixing and reducing efficiency.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...