McKinsey: Servers need an MPG-like energy rating

A study on data center energy consumption paints an ugly picture of runaway costs and hefty carbon footprints. It calls for measuring both facility efficiency and IT utilization.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Greenhouse gas emissions from data centers rank higher than the countries of Argentina and the Netherlands and right behind airlines, shipyards, and steel plants.

Those comparisons were compiled by consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the Uptime Institute, which on Wednesday published a report on the worsening picture--environmentally and economically--of energy consumption from data centers.

Data centers represent .5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Click on the image for a photo gallery tour of efforts by Silicon Valley data centers to go green. Elsa Wenzel/CNET Networks

McKinsey called for the creation of a metric that combines the energy efficiency of a data center facility with the utilization of IT gear that runs in data centers. When combined, the financial impact of data centers' energy bill will become more clear and cause people to act, which as a whole, has not been happening.

"Typically the costs are in different silos," said Kenneth Brill, the founder of research firm the Uptime Institute, who worked on the study. "The shocker is when you do put them together, it's clear that people should do something."

Although there have been different industry groups created, such as the Green Grid, on the whole, energy usage at data centers continues to go up.

That's because servers consume more power, the number of servers is increasing, and the cost of electricity is going up, said William Forrest, the associate principal for IT at McKinsey.

Global data center energy consumption doubled from 2000 to 2006. The projected growth in the U.S. between now and 2010 is the equivalent of 10 new power plants.

As a result, companies that are heavily dependent on IT, such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and financial services firms, are getting push-back from their boards on proposals to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new facilities, Forrest said. Those that don't manage energy well will have a bit taken out of their profits.

"The more you look, the more you find that the entirety of the IT stack, from the CPU up, is very inefficient," Forrest said. "Data centers are becoming a major business issue."

Heavy consumers will also come under growing regulatory scrutiny to lower the carbon footprint of their operations, with greenhouse gas emissions projected to quadruple between now and 2020.

"We think it's going to become a regulatory concern that will drive scrutiny not just in (corporate) boardrooms but with regulators as well," said Forrest.

Back to bite IT
There are a number of factors that contribute to runaway energy use and cost--and several steps that operators can take that have more to do with management than technology. Rather than build new "green" data centers, companies should focus on making existing ones run more efficiently.

Data centers are filled with relatively low-cost servers, which are often dedicated to one specific task or application. That simplifies the set-up of applications but is also highly inefficient: a typical server only uses 6 percent of its processing capacity while it continues to draw power.

Historically, the bill for energy falls outside the responsibility of chief information officers or data center operators.

Yet the total cost of operating a server is four to five times more than the purchase price over the 5-to-10-year lifetime of a server, according to the study.

And the cost of managing facilities is going up at 20 percent, higher than IT budgets' projected rise of 6 percent, according to the Uptime Institute.

What to do
McKinsey and the Uptime Institute concluded that users should aim to double energy efficiency by 2012 through more efficient individual components and a comprehensive data center management plan.

They call for companies to appoint an "Energy Czar," much the way a chief security officer manages security across an IT organization.

They also recommend an energy dashboard to give better information on obvious areas to improve efficiency. Cooling, in particular, can be greatly improved with better sealing of cabling and cheaper water-cooling systems.

On the equipment side, IT organizations should use more virtualization, retire old equipment, upgrade some equipment, and adopt a strategy of better matching equipment's processing power with an application's needs.

At an industry level, McKinsey and the Uptime Institute proposed a new financial metric for measuring data center efficiency that combines efficiency of facility operations, such as space cooling, and measures the utilization of IT equipment.

This standard would be the server equivalent to the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy)--the levels of fuel efficiency the U.S. government mandates that auto manufacturers meet.

"This metric would deliver immediate financial and transparency benefits to executive management of enterprises large and small and could become a government-recognized measure of efficiency," according to the study's summary.