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

<p>With two new specs on the horizon -- for storage and power supplies -- and a long-awaited update for servers, Energy Star is digging in deep to greening the hardware that runs so much of the economy.</p>

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.

But that's not to say there aren't big savings possible. In consumer products, there are plenty of opportunities for greater energy efficiency, even though it's a pretty small volume of overall sales. And in data centers, companies buy significantly fewer UPSes, but the size of the devices makes for potentially huge savings.

"If you're looking at a 1 megawatt system, and the choice is between a 92 percent efficient system and a 96 percent efficient system, that saves significant chunks of money over the lifetime of the UPS," Meyers explained.

Storage Hardware

The third and final addition to the Energy Star specifications for data center hardware covers storage devices.

"Storage is the fun spec," Meyers said. "If you think servers are complicated, storage is more so -- that's great because it's a fun challenge."

While servers can be considered roughly analogous to computers, at least in terms of creating an efficiency specification, storage devices are levels and levels higher in terms of complexity.

Different types of drives, wide ranges of storage capacity, tweaks in configuration and a broad array of uses -- from streaming media to live backups -- all combine to make the development of one uniform specification for storage a daunting task.

And the challenge, as with any Energy Star specification, is striking the balance between setting the standards at a level to make real improvements possible without making the testing process too heavy a burden on manufacturers.

Juggling those two needs, as well as the complexity of the market, means that it will likely be six months or more before the Energy Star specification for storage devices moves out of its current draft phase.

The Data Center Layer Cake

All the work that Energy Star is putting into data center hardware is mirrored on the larger buildings side, with the Energy Star for Data Centers certification.

Launched in June 2009, that specification focuses on the whole building rather than the parts operating within, using power usage effectiveness (PUE) as its benchmark for success. Meyers said that the work done on the facilities side is complementary to the work on more efficient products, but beyond the general overlap of using less energy in the data center, there's not much reference between the two.

However, stacked between those two groups is Energy Star's Low Carbon IT initiative, which promotes both hardware and facility management strategies for lower energy use in the data center. The group recently published a list of 12 strategies for decreasing energy use in the data center, ranging from virtualizing servers to investing in more efficient hardware to managing air flow and HVAC in the data center.

"I kind of view products, [Low Carbon IT's] Top 12, and energy star for buildings as layers of the cake," Meyers said. "We have the micro-level -- the lower level of the cake is the products; mid-level you have the complicated systems solutions, like how do you arrange your racks, air flow, virtualization, things you can't get at with a label on a product; and then at the highest level you have the whole building."

Just like baking a cake, Energy Star's efforts on so many of the ingredients in the data center adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Although the specification process is slow and incremental almost by its very nature, the three specs that Energy Star plan to launch year are sure to raise the bar on green IT at every level of the data center.

Data center photo via Shutterstock.

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