Congress Eyes Data Center Cooling

The environmental protection agency gets in on industry efforts to save energy in the data center.

Congress is turning its attention to power and cooling in the data center, asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to gather information on the subject.

The House of Representatives on July 12 overwhelmingly passed Resolution 5646, instructing the EPAs Energy Star program to study how much power corporate and federal data centers consume, what the industry is doing to develop energy-efficient servers, and what incentives can be offered to encourage businesses to use these technologies.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, addresses a growing concern for many businesses—the rapid rise in the costs of powering and cooling data centers. Industry observers say many businesses soon will reach the point where it will cost more to power and cool the data centers than it will to buy the products to put into them.

Several technology vendors applauded the House bill, saying it is a good first step in raising awareness and having the government take a role in addressing the issue. Others are wary of the feds stepping in, concerned that it could lead to unnecessary regulations.

Ken Brill, president of The Uptime Institute, a company with expertise in the design and operation of data centers, said the governments involvement could be helpful up to a point. It can raise awareness among technology workers, many of whom still are unaware of the growing power issues. It also could be beneficial if it resulted in an Energy Star sort of rating, similar to whats used on appliances and PCs, which helps identify energy-efficient machines but lets consumers decide whether to buy those machines.

However, Brill doesnt want to see Congress issuing regulations for how technology is created and data centers are built, particularly for an industry that is beginning to correct itself.

"Standards inevitably slow down the rate of technological change," said Brill, in Santa Fe, N.M. "Right now, you dont need rigidity; you need innovation."

However, one of the bills sponsors said this is the type of issue that the government needs to get involved in. "There are two things that really drive our economy," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. "One is technology, and the other is energy. I think this bill is a good marriage of the two."

Eshoo estimated that U.S. data center operators spend about $3.3 billion on power every year and that she expects that number to increase rapidly. Energy-

efficient servers can save up to 80 percent in electricity and cooling costs, an important factor with the U.S. server market expected to grow from 2.8 million units this year to 4.9 million in 2009, Eshoo said.

Several factors are conspiring to drive up data center power costs, from more powerful and denser servers to rising energy prices and inefficient cooling systems in the facilities. Industry players are making strides to address the issue, from more efficient processors from Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and Sun Microsystems to system-level devices and management software designed to better control the thermal features in systems. Technologies such as virtualization also play a role.

That said, there still is a place for government participation, said Steve Kester, manager of government relations for AMD, of Sunnyvale, Calif. An important aspect of the House bill is that it addresses the demand side of the issue, rather than simply the supply side. It is also broadly supported by Republicans, Democrats, the tech industry and environmental groups.

"This is broad-based support for something that really is a no-brainer," Kester said. "We have to address this. Its a critical issue. And the good thing is that, at the end of the day, its going to save everyone money—the industry, the government and even the consumer who uses their computer at home."

The government already is getting involved. In April, Sun, AMD, Intel and Hewlett-Packard joined with the EPA and the Alliance to Save Energy in creating the Green Grid Alliance, which is looking to address power consumption from several angles, including how centers are designed and what products are used. Other vendors, including Dell, VMware and American Power Conversion, have since joined.

Not everyone is convinced that government intervention is needed to address the issue. Jevin Jensen, director of IS at Mohawk Industries, has said that heat and power concerns have risen as the Calhoun, Ga., company has added racks to its data centers and that he is looking at more energy-efficient products.

However, the idea of Congress getting into the mix worries him. "Whenever I hear, We are from the federal government, and were here to help, I tend to run in the opposite direction as quickly as possible," Jensen said.