Green IT Supplement: Keeping your eye on the prize

Duncan Jefferies looks at the drivers for financial institutions adopting so-called 'green' data centres, including carbon taxes, erratic electricity supply and image, and urges firms to forget about whether it's going to save the environment or not and focus on the energy and operational cost savings

We are all encouraged to think green these days. Films like An Inconvenient Truth and events such as Live Earth have pushed saving the planet up the political and public agenda (and won Al Gore a Nobel prize in the process). This increasing awareness of the climate change time-bomb has put the environmental credentials of many sectors, such as aviation and energy, under the spotlight but to date the IT sector and the financial arena have largely escaped public censure - the latter has had enough on its plate after being blamed for the recession and wider problems, such as widening social disparity, caused by excessive pay. To date the IT sector has not been subject to the same level of scrutiny, even though it accounts for between two to three per cent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions. Around a quarter of that percentage is made up by CO2 emissions from the data centre, many of them at power hungry financial institution end user clients who are using them to run algo trading programmes, blade servers or to process huge amounts of customer data for cross-selling or regulatory purposes. Even those larger banks, insurers or investment houses that don't outsource these functions because they build and run their own data centres are still ultimately adding to greenhouse gases in the environment.

Defra, the UK government department for the environment, food and rural affairs, says data centre energy consumption in the country in 2007 was almost three per cent of the total national grid - and often that power is used inefficiently. So for a financial institution looking to make their business greener, the data centre is the most obvious place to start. Apart from helping the marketing department though, it also makes sense because less electricity consumption and emissions mean less running costs and potentially less tax in the future, as carbon cap and trade schemes become more and more prevalent.

The major IT vendors have been aware of this for a long time, which is why the concept of the so-called 'green' data centre has been kicked around the financial services industry for a number of years now, referring to the use of virtualisation, efficient air cooling, spatial design, better microchips and other technologies designed to cut CO2 and improve performance. While some might claim that the whole concept is 'greenwash' - a canny way of marketing new technology to image conscious banks, while emissions still go up as demand does - others believe a green data centre is truly an achievable goal. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the arguments - and it's unlikely that data centres are going to save the environment - the key thing for facilities managers and others at financial institutions to focus on is that there are electricity savings to be had here by implementing green technologies and processes. In the midst of a recession it is certainly the case that cost savings, not the good of the planet, will be the driving force behind bank or insurance chief executive officers deciding to overhaul their data centres.

"If you phrase this as 'green', that might not be a key priority in this economic climate," says Juergen Arnold, chairman of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) Europe trade body. "But if you phrase it in terms of energy savings, which is a subset of green IT,
you can guarantee that every CEO will be listening to what you have to tell them. Also, all of the CEOs recognise that having some kind of green corporate identity is important today. You need to show the politicians and decision makers that you have this on your agenda. How you live up to it is a different story."

Power and cooling concerns
Data centre power requirements are already outstripping power grid capacity in some high-density locations around the world, potentially causing erratic electricity supply. This lack of copper plate guaranteed consistent deliverable power is another reason for maximising the performance of existing facilities as you're unlikely to get permission to build in popular locations; that'll have to happen in some other location, leaving you to get the best that you can out of existing locations. Maximising the total cost of ownership (TCO) performance figures of data centres by extending their lifecycles and ensuring the 'biggest bang for your buck' is also attractive. Green technologies, such as dynamic air cooling, can help here whether it's a new build centre or a revamp of an existing facility.

A substantial part of the energy drain created by a data centre comes from its cooling requirements. Legacy data centres are often inefficient in this respect, with air circulating in an unmanaged way - for example, it's often cooled at floor level, then heated by hot server racks as it rises toward the exit vent, which isn't ideal. This tends to be less of a problem in newer data centres, as these often have a careful hot/cold aisle layout and smart 'dynamic' cooling solutions which manage the environment to deliver cooling when and where it is needed most. According to Vic Smith, chairman of the EMEA technical group at the Green Grid trade body, there is also increasing interest in solutions like free-air cooling, whereby data centres are placed in naturally cold locations such as Iceland or Northern Scotland, where the natural environment can provide all the cooling necessary. "If you're using free air cooling instead of chillers, you can make substantial savings," he adds. It sure beats having to cool down a facility in Andalucía or Arizona for example.

Available technologies
Underutilised hardware is another major factor in excess energy consumption in the data centre. Because some servers may only house a single application, or perhaps they still use only single or dual core microprocessors, their chips sit idle most of the time, yet still use almost as much power as they would if they were continually active. "A lot of the time only 40 or 50 per cent of the assets in the data centre are utilised," explains Arnold. Virtualisation technology is the most obvious solution to the problem. It allows financial institutions to consolidate the number of servers in their data centre, running multiple applications and services on the same machines. Quad core chips can also help but, if deployed, the need for excellent efficient air cooling rises as they can pump out lots of heat.

Credit Market Analysis, a subsidiary of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) Group, shows what can be done with other more modest technologies as well, having saved £300,00 in six months this year, after implementing a Storage Area Network (SAN) environment from IT vendor Compellent which maximises disk usage in the data centre, thereby reducing power consumption. The technology ensures every disk uses the right amount of stored data, with inactive data moved from the more expensive disks to cheaper back ups. Less disks spinning at any one time equals less power usage.

Ryan Sclanders, team manager for infrastructure services at Credit Market Analysis, was tasked with reviewing the company's storage requirements. "I found there was a lot of space that could be saved, and a lot of space that hadn't been fully utilised.. We're now utilising all our disks and presenting a better live service, so I'm getting good performance out of the storage while reducing the overall number of disks." He further claims that a number of data centre providers that the CME subsidiary considered were unable to meet their power requirements; a problem he feels is increasingly common these days. "Bandwidth is rather cheap now..but all new clients going into a data centre are going to be charged on power. So it's in your best interests to reduce your overall power requirements by as much as possible."

A good management platform can provide visibility into a data centre's performance and effectively assess the use of resources across both virtual and physical systems. The result is that data centre managers can
easily see where improvements can be made and prove a Return on Investment (RoI) to potentially sceptical boardrooms that are looking to hoard money in these recessionary times. Good management software can play its part too therefore in moving towards so-called green data centres.

In addition, more modest data de-duplication technologies, which reduce the level of redundant data stored in a data centre, may also help to improve overall efficiency. "You might think that information is just stored once, but if you look into the data centre itself, it may in fact be replicated 10 or 15 times over, taking up unnecessary space and power" says SNIA's Arnold. Reducing the amount of unnecessary information in the data centre has been of even greater importance since the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act and Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID), which have both placed new requirements on financial institutions regarding what digital information must be retained and for how long, growing the required amount of capacity at financial institutions' facilities.

Citigroup have invested £150 million in one of the most energy efficient data centres in the world. Built in Frankfurt and winner of the FST Award for Data Centre Excellence in 2008, it is part of Citi's global £30 billion plan to address climate change. The goal is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from their more than 14,500 facilities worldwide by 10 per cent by 2011. Arnold expects to see more projects of this scale in future. "You will see more mega data centres like this, but the companies building them are not talking about it publicly yet. Typically a stable power grid is the basis
for location selection. Some countries have issues with providing that."

Measuring performance
Only a fraction of the grid power consumed by a data centre reaches the IT systems, hence the introduction of the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and Data Centre Infrastructure Efficiency (DCIE) metrics by the Green
Grid. PUE is determined by dividing the amount of power entering a data centre by the power used to run the computer infrastructure within it, with the result expressed as a ration. The holy grail is a data centre with a PUE rating of one - namely, every watt of power in the transformer is being delivered to the IT equipment, with no loss in the site infrastructure. But with cooling technology what it is at present (i.e. a degree of energy is lost through cooling no matter how new or efficient the system), this remains
an ideal rather than an achievable reality. DCIE is the reciprocal of PUE and is expressed as a percentage that improves as it approaches 100 per cent. Both are intended as internal benchmarks, not for comparison between data centres, although they are increasingly being used as such despite the intentions of the Green Grid, as users seek some way to measure the efficiency - or 'greenness' call it what you will - of rival data centre offerings.

The fact remains that there are still no effective standard metrics for comparing the efficiency of different data centres, or even for measuring the true efficiency of IT work undertaken in the data centre - i.e. a group of non-virtualised servers, using only a fraction of their capacity, may have a better PUE rating than a high-performance grid taking jobs from other IT systems throughout the organisation, which is a misleading finding in terms of utilisation rates. Nonetheless the PUE is probably the closest to a commonly recognised and accepted efficiency comparison tool that we currently have despite its deficiencies, which is understandable as it wasn't designed specifically for this purpose.

In November last year The EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres was introduced, which aims to reduce data centre energy consumption in Europe by up to 20 per cent without compromising the reliability of services. It provides guidelines, recommendations and examples of best practice for all parties involved in data centres, including end users such as financial institutions. "Most banks are still several steps away from being able to meet the minimum expected standards in the code," says Liam Newcombe, secretary of the British Computer Society data centre specialist group. "But if you don't want to have your IT energy use regulated, then complying with voluntary codes is the best way to offset any enforceable regulation." He believes that compliance with the code could also benefit the public image of retail banks. "It could become a very visible stamp that says "we're not just advertising that we're green, we've actually done something that was externally recognised."

He is less convinced by green tax initiatives using cap and trade protocols, such as the UK's Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), which is a legally binding carbon trading scheme that comes into force in April 2010. It aims to create a financial incentive for companies to reduce CO2 emissions. After purchasing allowances equivalent to their emissions each year, they are free to sell any they do not subsequently use to other organisations. Newcombe calls it "carbon musical chairs" and believes it will "set up the most fantastic opportunities for carbon laundering", with banks merely outsourcing their data centres to relieve themselves of the associated CRC reporting burden. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (see page 64), the basis for the UK's CRC, is also supposedly penalising heavy polluters and electricity guzzlers but at the moment the tax can hardly be said to be onerous, making it an unlikely driver towards a green data centre just yet, although its time may yet come. When and if less pollution allowances are available and the price rises then the motivation to increase efficiency will be compelling. Human nature being what it is, it's likely to be these bottom line drivers, and not a desire to save the planet, that ultimately leads to the increasing adoption of 'green' data centres.

That financial organisations are investing in new, energy efficient data centres in order to cut costs and prepare their organisation for the future, rather than for more altruistic reasons, may indeed be an inconvenient truth but if a reduction in the negative impact of data centres on the environment is the result then we should all be happy. Perhaps we should stop the marketing departments calling them 'green' though, which is surely an oxymoron, and just refer to them as efficient.

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