How Energy Star is Working on the Green Data Center of the Future

Everyone is talking about cloud computing as the future of IT, or the future of business, or the future of commerce, or all of the above.

That may be true, and that shift may lead to a much greener future for IT, but at the moment the data center world is struggling under the weight of unused servers, a need for uptime over efficiency, and a general lack of insight into just how much energy is being wasted within data centers of all sizes.

None of these are new problems, and in fact one of the biggest challenges facing green data center proponents is getting beyond tackling the same old problems.

Into this situation comes the EPA's Energy Star program. Already host of the nation's second-most-recognized green label (at least as of 2009), the group has been developing its standards for data center infrastructure for years.

Back in 2009, Energy Star launched a certification for servers, which was received less than warmly on the whole in large part because of the narrow scope of servers covered under the specification.

Rolling out this year, however, are two new certifications and a long-awaited updated to the servers spec, and to find out more about how they're progressing, I talked to R.J. Meyers, Energy Star's Data Center Products Lead, about how the EPA is working to green the data center from within.

Meyers walked me through what Energy Star is working on for the data center -- but it's important to note that some of these details could change as the specifications go through the stakeholder process.

Servers 2.0

First and foremost, Energy Star is working on an update to their servers specification, and the planned improvements would go a long ways to overcoming the two biggest criticisms of version 1.0: Not including blade servers and not managing active power consumption.

Back in 2009, Preston Gralla wrote for GreenBiz a takedown of the shortcomings of the spec, writing in part:

Blade servers are at the core of virtualization projects, which can save dramatic amounts of energy and money. Many data centers that are going green go with blade servers rather than traditional servers. In fact, it's likely that you'd use more energy if you bought Energy Star-labeled servers than if you bought blade servers, which can't get the Energy Star label.
The other problem is that the Energy Star specifications measure server use when the server is idle. Servers, by their very nature, are not designed to be idle. If a server is idle, you don't need it. And there's not necessarily a correlation between a server's energy use when idle compared to when it's being heavily used.

Meyers will be the first to admit that those were shortcomings in the first round of the servers specification. Although he was not at Energy Star during the creation of that spec, it was a sacrifice the agency needed to make.

"There was a sense with version 1.0 to get a stake in the ground, to set something and move forward from there," Meyers explained. "[There's a need to] be able to just get going on the specs, and provide a reasonable measure of efficiency," while improving the quality of the spec down the road.

And that's where version 2.0 for servers comes in. In addition to starting to set efficiency measures for blade servers, the Energy Star team is also considering expanding the scope of the specification to include three- and four-socket servers, in addition to the one- and two-socket servers included in v1.0.

All of these changes come in the name of expanding the reach and potential impact of the servers specification. But Energy Star is going deeper as well as broader: The other big change for the new iteration of Energy Star for servers is the inclusion of active-load power consumption, which Energy Star will do with the newly created Server Efficiency Rating Tool (SERT) from the benchmarking organization SPEC.

Monitoring active energy use -- instead of the current practice of monitoring only the energy a server uses while idling -- will go a long way toward creating a step-change in the energy efficiency of servers. Unfortunately, it's a process that likely won't be fully complete until version 3.0 of the specification is done, which of course could be many years down the line.

Meyers said Energy Star expects to issue a draft of the version 2.0 specification in the next couple of months.

Uninterruptible Power Supplies

Also coming in the next couple of months is the first Energy Star specification for uninterruptible power supplies (UPSes). This specification is something of a different ball game than servers, partly because UPSes are a much smaller portion of data center energy use, but also because the certification applies to both consumer- and data center-scale products.

The UPS certification is broad, but the category itself offers few of the challenges of servers or storage. UPSes are simply not as large a piece of the data center puzzle, or energy draw, being primarily used for battery backup, smoothing out and conditioning the power entering a data center and protecting the IT load from surges.

Next page: Why storage is the 'fun spec'