Canada: Toward Sustainable IT — Measuring Data Centre Energy Efficiency

Last Updated: July 22 2009
Article by Charles S. Morgan

Most Read Contributor in Canada, September 2018

A recently published survey provides contrasting perspectives on Green IT. Almost everyone agrees on the benefits of enhancing computing power while curtailing energy consumption. However, few organizations appear to have truly harnessed the potential of Green IT. One particularly promising area is the greening of data centres, whose ever-increasing energy needs are resulting in higher operating costs. Industry participants have been developing and continue to refine metrics that allow organizations to measure, compare and improve their energy efficiency.

Leading The Way (Or Not)

The industry group Think Eco-Logical conducted a survey of more than 275 IT professionals across multiple industries. The results underscore the importance of leadership to a successful Green IT strategy and reveal two challenges. First, respondents could not identify any one individual or organization as a Green IT leader, reflecting a lack of perceived trend-setters whose practices can be widely adopted throughout the industry. Second, almost half of the respondents identified lack of executive focus as a significant challenge to implementing sustainability programs in the private sector. They either did not have an owner of their corporate sustainability strategy, or simply didn't know whether their organization had a strategy at all. In fact, "doing nothing" ranked third on a list of actions taken at the executive level.

These results suggest that organizations need clearly defined internal policies on Green IT in order to move to the next level of being industry leaders. The first step is properly framing the challenge before setting clear objectives for future gains.

Looking To Data Centres

In recent years, the IT industry has focused on data centres to realize gains in energy efficiency. Data centres have attracted the attention of the United States Department of Energy (DOE), which noted that they "consume 10 to 100 times more energy per square foot than a typical office building" and, at current growth rates, could in five years require double the power they currently need.

Developing an IT infrastructure powerful enough to meet future computing needs but with more stable energy consumption could result in considerable savings, both in a company's energy costs and in the avoided cost to the public of building more electricity-generating capacity to meet demand. The growth in electricity consumed by data centres in the US between now and 2010 is forecast to be the equivalent of ten new power plants. Globally, carbon emissions from data centres are projected to quadruple by 2020.

DOE data demonstrates that the process of cooling the computing machines housed in data centres requires almost as much power as the machines consume in carrying out data-processing functions. Green IT efforts today include developing more effective ways of using space so as to optimize the cooling process. Still, questions remain: Just how efficient are the data centres of today? And how can organizations track their efficiency gains?

Tracking Progress: Enter The Green Grid

The Green Grid, an industry consortium with members from companies including Sun Microsystems, Intel, Microsoft and Dell, has been active in developing practical tools for measuring and enhancing the energy efficiency of data centres. In one of its most influential "White Papers" from February 2007, the Green Grid threw its support behind two related metrics used to track data centre efficiency: Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and its inverse, Data centre Efficiency (DCE). PUE is calculated by dividing the total power required to run a data centre by the power required to operate the IT equipment. A PUE of "3" means that a data centre's power requirements are three times greater than the power needed to run its IT equipment.

The PUE/DCE gained broad acceptance because of the relative ease with which organizations could compile data. It was also useful because it allowed companies to measure their efficiency against that of their peers. Green Grid member Mark Monroe of Sun Microsystems referred, in an interview posted on the technology website Ars Technica, to "healthy competition between Google and Microsoft" over which had the more favourable PUE. Widely accepted metrics also allow organizations to make informed decisions about their IT operations, for example whether a need for more power could be met by enhancing efficiency.

In a subsequent White Paper, the Green Grid sought to build on the success of PUE/DCE by developing another, more specific, metric used to calculate the ratio of "useful work" accomplished in a data centre to the total amount of energy required by the data centre to produce it. This metric, defined as DCeP, is considerably more difficult to calculate, due both to the challenges of defining "useful work," a term that is subject to interpretation and whose definition varies even between companies operating in the same industry, and of determining energy consumption for accomplishing specific tasks. The Green Grid has recently proposed various proxies, or indicators, which, while being less precise than the DCeP, would be easier to determine while remaining useful in tracking the efficiency of data centres; it is currently soliciting feedback from the industry.

Although Green IT may not yet have a clear industry leader, tools do exist for organizations to identify efficiency gains in their IT infrastructure. Those who are quickest to harness those tools stand to benefit from significant cost savings and strategic advantage, not to mention the favourable publicity associated with being perceived as industry leaders.

McCarthy Tétrault Notes:

Green IT is not (yet) a "compliance" issue in North America nearly to the extent that it is in Europe. Even before it becomes a compliance issue, however, cost drivers may encourage companies to make environmentally "virtuous" choices. As noted above, server farms and data centres are enormous (and costly) consumers of energy. Server virtualization is rapidly gaining converts in industry, simply because it is both cost-effective and energy-efficient. In fact, according to David Senf, IDC Canada Director of Infrastructure Solutions, the top reason Canadian businesses invest in Green IT is cost savings.

In Europe, Green IT legislative initiatives play an increasingly significant role in many companies' compliance processes. The EC Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, the EC Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment, and the EC Directive on Eco-Design of Energy-Using Products are but three recent examples of framework legislation in this area. In the United States and Canada, it is simply a matter of time before some form of cap and trade or carbon tax legislation is adopted. In fact, the US Environmental Protection Association very recently declared, for the first time, that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases sent off by cars and many industrial plants "endanger public health and welfare" — setting the stage for regulating them under US federal clean air laws.

As Green IT increasingly becomes a cost issue and a compliance issue, it will inevitably become a contractual issue.

It is fair to say that soon, commercial and corporate lawyers will increasingly be seeing contractual audit provisions that specifically relate to determining whether a company meets its own Green IT policy and/or any related statutorily-imposed obligations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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