Green Schools | Feature

5 Essentials to Greening the Data Center

A growing number of districts are overhauling their data centers to conserve energy and cash. Here's a primer on the most important elements of any sustainability effort.

A 2008 study by the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. projected that the world's data centers would surpass the airline industry in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Certainly adding to those emissions are K-12 districts, whose data centers hold the equipment that serves as the backbone for an ever-growing number of computing initiatives. Inevitably, the dramatic rise in K-12 technology use in recent years has given way to soaring energy usage and power bills in many districts.

"These data centers are needed to support 21st century education," acknowledges Jim Maclay, director of energy services for LPA, an Irvine, CA-based design firm with expertise in K-12 sustainability issues. But that doesn't mean data centers have to be wasteful, he says. "They can be designed in a way that both reduces the harmful effects of fossil fuel-based energy consumption and doesn't put a burden on the operating budget."

The good news is that many K-12 school districts are recognizing their data centers as fertile ground for energy and cost savings and are taking steps to improve their energy efficiency. In CDW-G's annual survey of IT energy efficiency, 77 percent of K-12 respondents indicated that they have or are planning a data center consolidation strategy at their school or district. Among the educators who said that their institutions have taken these measures, 63 percent reported energy savings of 1 percent or more.

Of course, not all energy-saving plans are created equal; some greening measures clearly rise to the top of the list of best practices. We talked to energy experts and district IT directors who have undertaken data-greening efforts, and from these conversations we were able to identify five essential elements to any data center greening initiative.

If your district has not yet begun a data center redesign, then the following guidelines can help you get started on a plan. Even if your district is on its way to a greener data center, taking a look at these essential elements may help ensure you're not missing steps integral to achieving strategic energy and cost savings.

Element 1: Measuring Energy Usage
Management guru Peter Drucker is credited with saying, "What gets measured gets managed," and it's no less true in data centers than it is in corporate boardrooms. While CDW-G's annual survey reveals that many schools and districts report taking steps to overhaul their data centers, it also tells us that 88 percent of respondents said they are not tracking their data centers' power usage effectiveness (PUE). This means that many districts don't know how much energy their data centers are actually using--even the districts that have energy-saving plans in place.

"If you don't have any idea how inefficient you are, you don't know where to start," points out Gary Markowitz, president of Kilojolts Consulting Group, an energy-management consulting firm based in Lexington, MA.

Markowitz says that data center overhaul efforts must begin with baseline energy-usage measurements, and then incorporate strategies for continuous tracking of energy consumption throughout the process. His group is one of many to offer toolkits for tracking energy consumption. [See "Tools for Tracking Energy Usage," sidebar] In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Energy offer initiatives through their joint Energy Star program to assess data center improvements.

Without such information, it becomes harder to justify expenses toward data center greening, notes Rich Kaestner, green computing project director at the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), a professional association for K-12 technology leaders that offers its own web-based tool for quickly estimating annual kilowatt-hours used and related costs.

The point about measurement isn't lost on Art Stellar, superintendent at Burke County Public Schools in Burke County, NC, which has been named an Energy Star Leader by the EPA and Department of Energy because of its efforts in energy conservation. Before Stellar arrived, he explains, the district was doing little monitoring of its energy usage. Now, he says, "We conduct energy audits of the buildings on a routine schedule, and include the rooms containing the data centers during those audits."

To track actual energy usage and savings, the district uses an energy management software program from EnergyCap to track utility bills, generate management reports, and calculate "cost avoidance" accrued from energy management activities. Armed with detailed information about where it was and was not expending energy, Burke County made changes both inside and outside its data center--from consolidating and centralizing its servers in one facility and installing a more efficient cooling system to data center-initiated shutdown of all computers after 6 p.m. As a result, the district was able to reduce costs by $1.2 million last year alone, enough to save teacher positions. "Once you start putting it in those terms, it's much easier to justify the changes you're making," Stellar says.

Element 2: Virtual Servers
Server virtualization--using software to run multiple applications concurrently on the same host computer--is arguably where districts can make the most impact in their data center greening efforts. Essentially a consolidation effort, virtualization reduces energy usage by reducing the number of physical servers in the room while maintaining and making room for increased data storage capacity.

"So many servers are running with minimal utilization," says Mark Lafferty, CDW-G's director of strategic solutions and services, servers and storage. "By virtualizing and getting more efficient utilization out of fewer servers, there's a major benefit to power consumption. Instead of having 10 servers running at full power but with only 3 to 4 percent utilization, you can have one machine that runs at 60 to 80 percent."

In the case of Alvarado Independent School District, a school system with 3,400 students and 400 employees spread out over 96 square miles in north Texas, concerns about energy costs and the spiraling growth of the district's data needs led to a redesign of the data center in 2009, with a focus on server virtualization.

Approximately 40 servers and 45 terabytes of network storage centrally ran the data operations over the district's eight locations, and one of the major steps taken by the Alvarado IT group was to consolidate the servers through a new storage-area network infrastructure. Kyle Berger, the district's executive director of technology services, says that by virtualizing the servers, he found that, on average, he could use one server to perform the work previously done by eight without losing any functionality. Besides the significant reduction in power consumption, the move lowered hardware and maintenance costs, he notes.

It's probably not news to anyone in IT that server virtualization can save both energy and money. But how great the savings depends largely on careful preplanning. "You have to analyze the CPU usage of your servers and figure out what works together--and make an initial financial investment, particularly if you find that a new server is needed to do the job," says CoSN's Kaestner. "In a K-12 district, the technology department is often understaffed, so when new applications are added, they might just buy a server and put it on the network. Consolidation takes time and planning, but it's worth it."

Top Energy-Saving Consolidation Measures
There are measures beyond our five essentials that can reduce energy consumption in the data center--many of them in use in K-12 schools. According to CDW-G, the most popular energy-saving measures IT administrators report using include*:

  • Virtualizing servers and/or storage (63%)
  • Consolidating servers (61%)
  • Building private or using public clouds (37%)
  • Retiring unused or "ghost" servers (36%)
  • Replacing old processors with low-power versions (35%)
  • Consolidating UPS devices (24%)
  • Shutting down or pausing servers during off-peak operations (22%)
  • Employing high-density cooling (14%)

*Those who have or are developing a strategy were asked to select all that apply. Source: CDW-G 2010 Energy Efficient IT Report

Element 3: Incorporating the Cloud
When it comes to improving energy efficiency in the data center, a step beyond server virtualization is moving to cloud computing--outsourcing the hosting job so that services and storage are provided over the internet. Many K-12 districts have begun moving that way by using free e-mail applications such as those offered by Google or Microsoft Office Live rather than supporting their own server. Others have implemented online programs such as Pearson PowerSchool for student record keeping, or rely on software-as-a-service providers such as SchoolDude to host applications that they can then access on demand.

For some districts, the cloud is not always an easy call. At Alvarado ISD, Berger and his staff have been exploring ways in which they can adopt cloud computing and have shifted certain applications in that direction. The concern, he notes, is that turning over hosting tasks can also mean relinquishing some control over how applications are run. "You're putting your faith in someone else, and it can mean losing flexibility with what you need to do," he says.

Matters of faith notwithstanding, Burke County Public Schools has, over the past few years, worked to move several of its instructional software packages from server-based configurations to the cloud. "Moving this software to the cloud has improved local server performance by freeing up server space and processor power," reports Superintendent Stellar. "In some cases, we were running separate servers just for certain software packages; moving to the cloud eliminated hardware and maintenance."

Eliminating hardware can be a huge step in the right direction, says CoSN's Kaestner. He notes that while server processors typically run at less than 10 percent of capacity, the energy they consume goes well beyond the active processing, since they are required to be on around the clock. "Less than half of the energy use of the data center comes from the servers themselves," he says. "The rest comes from the support systems, including HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning], power supplies, and backup. So when you eliminate a server, in a sense you're saving twice the energy that server actually uses."

Element 4: Climate Control
Alvarado's Berger stresses the importance of paying attention to ancillary systems like HVAC. "Cooling is half the battle," he says. "If you don't have the right infrastructure for that, you can lose out on a lot of potential savings."

Taking control of a data center's climate issues should begin with assessing its current setup. Airflow obstructions from cables and other materials should be removed, particularly in a raised-floor environment. Since hot air rises and cool air descends, the cooling should come from above rather than below. Ductless heat exchangers and the use of outside air can also help to save on HVAC costs. In many cases, Kaestner notes, data centers are running with air-conditioning units that are inefficient. Although it requires a capital investment, newer equipment can bring substantial energy savings.

Alvarado ISD installed an APC InfraStruxure device for in-row cooling that enabled the data center to keep certain aisles hotter than others depending on equipment needs. In doing so, the IT group found it could increase data center power and cooling capacity while saving space. "It allowed us not to have these robust units cooling the entire room to frigid temperatures," Berger notes. "With the focused cooling, we have more room to grow." Berger estimates that between the improved design and the adoption of virtualization and cloud computing, his data center has reduced energy consumption by 25 percent.

A district can save even more energy by taking steps as simple as turning up the thermostat, depending on the equipment's specs. "Modern computers don't need to be at 68 degrees; they can float all the way up to 78 and work perfectly fine," points out Kilojolts' Markowitz. Newer computers also have less stringent relative humidity requirements than those of previous generations, Markowitz says, noting that many who oversee data centers continue to operate on previous standards, cooling and humidifying the air more than they need to.

Element 5: Integration and Communication
None of these energy-saving changes can occur in a vacuum. "You have to open up the communication early on between the IT department and the facilities and operations department within the school district," says Berger. Often, he notes, the IT people aren't seeing the electric bills, and thus are unaware of where there is the potential for savings; on the other side, facilities personnel need to understand what the IT requirements and goals are and how those can be accomplished through a greening strategy.

"The prevailing attitude has to be that facilities is part of the IT team," agrees Markowitz. "In many organizations IT is seen as an entity of its own, buying its own equipment without telling anyone and then going back to facilities and saying 'Where's our power?' That attitude has to change."

Because technology leaders typically don't have budget responsibility for energy use, it's easy for data center greening to remain a low priority. IT directors, Kaestner notes, "are dealing with a budget crisis, and it doesn't help their own departmental budgets to be green."

But districts that have taken the initiative to go green have found that the benefits can be considerable--and not just financial. In 2009, Orange City School District in Pepper Pike, OH, underwent data center renovations that included consolidating servers through virtualization and cloud computing, and moving the physical servers into a concentrated area to reduce cooling costs--all of which bought the IT group "a lot of goodwill," says Kurt Bernardo, technology coordinator for the district. "As part of a school district you try to set a good example," he adds. "After what we've done, people in other departments are trying to do their part."

Alvarado ISD's Berger believes the goodwill gained by IT for their greening efforts carries substantial value. "Funds are decreasing everywhere," he says. "If we can show what we're doing to conserve power and how we are putting our savings back into the students rather than just running these things in the background, that's great political value."

Orange City and Alvarado are two of eight districts that have earned Green Computing certification as part of a program run by CoSN to provide K-12 technology leaders with an opportunity to be recognized for their efforts at reducing their school or district's carbon footprints. "Schools are in the public eye, and having good public relations is important. Try working to pass a school bond if you don't have good relationships with your community," says CoSN's Kaestner. "Greening the data center gives technology leaders an opportunity to set an example while saving money that can be used to improve education."

Tools for Tracking Energy Usage
Here are some of the free tools available to help measure energy usage, an important part of creating a greener data center:

CoSN Energy Usage Calculator
The Consortium for School Networking offers this quick approach for estimating annual kilowatt-hours and related costs for computer use by K-12 users (by group) and the related data center infrastructure.

Data Center Energy Efficiency Calculator
Info-Tech designed this tool to help analyze metrics in order to optimize power utilization and cooling in the data center.

Green Data Center Calculator--Virtualization
This calculator from IT Business Edge gives a quick approximation of the results that can be expected from server virtualization.

PUE and DCiE Calculator
42U's interactive calculator helps measure power usage effectiveness and data center infrastructure efficiency.

Data Center Efficiency Calculator
APC offers a tool that calculates the impact of alternative power and cooling approaches on energy costs.

IT Carbon & Energy Allocation Calculator
APC's allocation calculator helps IT staff figure out efficiency, load characteristics, and location of carbon and energy allocation.

Data Center Maturity Model
The Green Grid enables users to benchmark the current performance of each element in a data center, determine levels of maturity, and identify the ongoing steps and innovations needed to achieve greater energy efficiency and sustainability.