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Research: Old data centers can be nearly as 'green' as new ones

Tweaking older data centers can make them almost as energy efficient as building from the ground up, according to analysis of case studies by tech heavyweights.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Revamping existing data centers can achieve energy efficiency close to those built from scratch to be greener, according to an early report Thursday from Accenture, which analyzed results of case studies backed by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

green energy

The energy savings explored, if widespread, could prevent the release of carbon dioxide equivalent to taking 8 million cars off the road, researchers said.

Data center energy use could double by 2011, amounting to $7.4 billion in U.S. electricity costs and requiring the equivalent of 10 new power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Just because you're not (running) a new data center doesn't mean you can sit back," said Teresa Tung, senior researcher at Accenture Technology Labs, which pooled results of studies in which Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and tech heavyweights including Yahoo, Sun, and Oracle collaborated.

Online activity may exist in the cloud, but for each e-mail sent or movie downloaded, a "little puff of carbon" is emitted somewhere on the back-end, as Sun vice president of engineering Subodh Bapat has described.

Projected growth in IT power consumption outpaces that of any other industry, noted Ray Pfeifer, chair of data center efficiency for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which organized a summit at Sun's headquarters, where study results were presented.

"People are saying there are five fuels: coal, nuclear, gas, and oil. But efficiency is the fifth fuel."
--PK Agarwal, CTO for state of California

Many tech leaders fear the sector will suffer from rising energy costs and anticipated California caps on carbon emissions.

Some consider their data center details to be trade secrets, but more are opening up to each other to try to reduce the industry's carbon footprint. Case in point, some say, are the collaborative demonstration projects, which put into practice recommendations on data center efficiency (PDF) presented to Congress in 2007 by the EPA.

New data centers using the suggested technologies could achieve 79 percent infrastructure efficiency, according to Tung of Accenture. Older data centers applying the tweaks weren't far behind at 74 percent efficiency.

A holistic approach to IT transformation can reduce the electrical use of data centers better than individual site improvements, Tung added.

Useful systems included airflow management with variable fan drives and water side economizers. In addition to promoting consolidation and virtualization, researchers underscored the importance of better managing virtual environments.

Standards are needed to improve security and optimize the virtual environment, said David Thompson, chief information officer at Symantec, which he said saved $40 million through consolidating data centers last year.

Sun Microsystems has reduced its number of data centers from a dozen five years ago to seven today, said chief information officer Bob Worrall, adding that he'd like that to drop to three data centers in the next several years.

"People are saying there are five fuels: coal, nuclear, gas, and oil," said PK Agarwal, chief technology officer for the state of California. "But efficiency is the fifth fuel."

The full report of the data center demonstration projects' results is set to become available July 11.

Other data center hosts for the case studies were Symantec, NetApp, Synopsys, the U.S. Post Office, and Digital Realty Trust. Also participating in the research were SynapSense, APC, Cassatt, IBM, Liebert, Modius, Power Assure, PowerSmiths, Rittal, SprayCool, the California Energy Commisison, and PG&E.