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Obama targets data centers for energy cuts

Nov. 15, 2009 - 06:00AM   |  
By TIM KAUFFMAN   |   Comments

The Obama administration is calling on federal agencies to cut energy consumption in their data centers as part of the broader effort to green federal operations.

The executive order President Barack Obama signed Oct. 5 requires agencies to begin measuring greenhouse gas emissions and set targets for reducing them.

One way to get there will be to curb energy consumption in data centers facilities that house computer servers and related systems. Data centers account for about 2 percent of all electricity consumed in the U.S. roughly equivalent to the entire airline industry and can consume up to 100 times more energy than the standard office building. What's more, consumption is expected to double by 2011, according to federal statistics. The government owns and operates roughly 10 percent of the country's data centers and servers, according to an Environmental Protection Agency estimate based on 2006 data.

The Office of Management and Budget last month asked agencies to submit updated statistics on their data centers, including details on energy consumption, property locations and capacity of centers, said Cyndi Vallina, OMB deputy associate administrator, during a green computing conference earlier this month in Washington.

The last governmentwide inventory of data centers was in 1999, Vallina said. More than three dozen agencies have submitted details to OMB, and the data will be used to help formulate the president's 2011 budget submission, she said.

The executive order requires agencies to adopt best practices for managing their servers and data centers in an energy-efficient manner. Best practices weren't defined, although some agencies have begun to realize savings by adopting technologies to consolidate servers and enhance their efficiency.

For example, the U.S. Postal Service, the Defense Contract Management Agency and other agencies have consolidated their servers through a process called virtualization, which allows operating systems that ordinarily would run on separate servers to be combined on single servers. In 2007, the Postal Service eliminated 791 of its 895 physical servers by consolidating them through virtualization, reducing its data center power consumption by 3.5 million kilowatt-hours a year.

"There's just a myriad of things and solutions out there that can be done to lower your carbon footprint and save on energy efficacy," said John Sindelar, a retired federal executive who is helping agencies green their information technology operations as a client industry executive at HP Enterprise Services, a division of Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif.

More than 30 percent of servers in the U.S. operate at less than 2 percent capacity, said Una Song, a sales and marketing manager with the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

"That tells us there is a lot of opportunity to make our data centers more energy efficient," Song said at the conference.

Another way to cut energy consumption in data centers is to target the energy used to cool the servers and equipment within the data centers. Roughly half of the energy consumed by data centers is used to cool the centers, not to power the IT equipment.

Most data centers are kept below 70 degrees to keep equipment from overheating, even though today's servers can handle temperatures above 90 degrees.

Song advised agencies to take advantage of Energy Star's Portfolio Manager, an interactive tool that can help agencies track and assess energy consumption within individual buildings and data centers and across the property portfolio. Agencies enter electricity data into the tool and can compare energy consumption at their buildings to other similar facilities.

The tool also will calculate a building's greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, three of the most common sources.

Developing an Energy Star rating tool

Energy Star is in the process of developing a rating tool for data centers, both standalone centers and those located in office buildings, based on a survey of energy usage statistics from more than 100 federal and private-sector data centers.

Once complete, the tool would be used to certify the efficiency of data centers under the Energy Star program, like similar programs for buildings and appliances.

HP employed multiple solutions consolidation, virtualization and increased air temperatures to cut energy consumption in its own data centers by 60 percent during the past three years, Sindelar said.

Sindelar, whose last federal job was acting associate administrator of governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration, said federal agencies need to adopt a comprehensive approach to tackling energy consumption in data centers.

Making a data center more energy efficient will accomplish little if the center is inside an older building that is not updated with energy-efficient equipment and renovations, Sindelar explained.

Cloud computing also can help reduce the need for federal data centers, since computing services such as storage space, operating systems and e-mail are provided through Web-based applications that don't require additional federal servers or equipment, Sindelar said. HP uses cloud computing for its own operations and also offers printing services for its clients through cloud computing.

The White House has called on federal agencies to start adopting cloud computing and intends to provide specific guidance for agencies in the 2011 budget it submits in February.

Even though data centers are tied to information technology, greening them will require buy-in and input from more than just the chief information officer, Sindelar said. An agency's financial, procurement, real property and energy officials all must be at the table when decisions are made, meaning it really requires leadership from the head of the agency.

"It's a [chief executive officer] challenge, not a CIO challenge," he said.

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