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Squeezing green from the data center

Sun Microsystems' Bob Worrall has a question for his fellow CIOs: Have you seen an energy bill lately?

Earlier this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report to Congress that was intended to send a message to U.S. businesses: run your data centers more efficiently.

No doubt, the EPA is recalling the success of its consumer-oriented Energy Star Program in this assessment of data center power consumption and suggestions for improvements. Given the EPA's findings that server and data center power consumption in 2006 is estimated to be more than double the electricity that was consumed for this purpose in 2000 (PDF) and shows no signs of slowing, it's surprising that there has not been more heated debate in the boardroom between data center managers and chief information officers and facilities managers and chief financial officers.

Large corporations consistently shoulder substantial electricity and real estate costs. As managers, we should expect to receive more corporate scrutiny as the resources we consume for massive technology deployments skyrocket; that is, if we have not already begun to feel the heat, so to speak.

In addition, utilities in some parts of the country such as California and New York have already stretched their resources thin to satisfy the growing power needs of local businesses. When you consider Gartner analyst Michael Bell's prediction that by 2008, at least 50 percent of data centers will have insufficient power and cooling capacity, ("2006 Data Center Polling Results: Power and Cooling") it's not hard to see the imminent clash.

By working together, CIOs and CFOs can direct their efforts to successfully squeezing "green" into--and out of--the data center.

Concern for environmental issues isn't necessarily new--recycling used PCs has long been a standard, for example--but eco-responsibility has rarely played an important role in enterprise IT or in its management. But inevitably, many senior executives, historically motivated by business strategy rather than concern for the environment, have moved the issue to the top of their respective business agendas. It has simply become a practical--read "financial"--issue.

And while many see the roles of CIO and CFO as mostly unrelated--the former focused on adding value to business operations through innovative use of technology, and the latter ensuring fiscal responsibly--we do share a common interest of delivering value to shareholders and are increasingly joining forces to address both economic and ecologic issues, and to translate that cooperation into data center design and management.

As CIO for Sun Microsystems, I'm of course expected to manage all of the traditional aspects of IT: hardware, software, applications, employee productivity, future technology investments, etc. But given the significant R&D and engineering investment my company has made to design and create energy-efficient technology, I've had the advantage of being an early adopter of such technology and have installed several highly energy-efficient data centers recently. Here are a few things I have learned in the process:

Use ecofriendly technologies whenever possible when upgrading your server and data center hardware. Even if your department does not directly bear the brunt of high electricity or facilities fees, be sure to calculate the full cost of ownership, including space, power and cooling costs into your purchases, and take full advantage of any applicable utility company rebates. I speak from experience when I say that these alone saved my company nearly a million dollars during recent upgrades.

Next, if you are designing new facilities, take advantage of the opportunity to realistically evaluate your space needs. Today's energy-efficient technology takes up significantly less floor space than previous generations of hardware. Virtualization makes location nearly irrelevant.

Work together. Understand the financial impact of technology on operating expenses and create a plan together. Talk with your facilities organization to identify consolidation opportunities. The technology is readily available, so by incorporating best practices in data center design, you can both save your company money and reduce its environmental impact. Make sure those who run IT and who manage space have standard efficiency metrics to arrive at a complete cost picture.

New standards in data center design are not only good for the environment, but they are also good for the bottom line. By working together, CIOs and CFOs can direct their efforts to successfully squeezing "green" into--and out of--the data center.