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Sustainable IT: Reducing energy use in a data-hungry world

IT operations have seen huge gains in energy efficiency, but much more is possible.

When John Frey started working in sustainable IT at Hewlett Packard Enterprise 20 years ago, he was a department of one. For his last five years as HPE's chief technologist for sustainable transformation, he's worked with a team, but he notes that there is still no degree program for sustainable IT and the only textbook on the topic is 10 years old and woefully out of date.

So it's not surprising that many IT professionals struggle to optimize their purchasing, use, and upcycling strategies for sustainability.

"So many of our customers have no lifecycle strategy at all," simply replacing equipment every few years, Frey says. But because servers, storage, and networking equipment all have different lifecycles and power performance changes dramatically from generation to generation, the choices companies were making "were probably the wrong answer in most cases," he says.

The challenge of powering up IT to guide a more efficient future

Frey has made a career of helping organizations make more sustainable IT choices, and the world needs that expertise now more than ever. Data centers are considered one of the bigger electricity consumers, with data centers using as much as 3 percent of the world’s electricity, according to various estimates. The issue is not just the figure itself but the rate at which it is accelerating, which is motivating the industry to minimize power usage.

While a tiny fraction of the 25 percent of global energy used to transport people and goods, Ryan Fogle, Energy Star data center product development and marketing manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, says, "When you think of global energy consumption, it's also a big number."

Fogle points out that IT's energy demands will only grow as more sustainable technologies come online, and it will take more data processing power to manage the artificial intelligence needed to operate clean tech efficiently. That's a paradox surrounding the global movement toward a carbon-neutral future and a force that's adding urgency to sustainable IT initiatives.

"You really want to get the most work from your watts so you don't have a world awash in data centers," Fogle says.

The EPA first introduced the Energy Star labeling program to help consumers choose the most energy-efficient products in 1992, and the first products it rated were computers and monitors. "I think the electronic space has been a success story," Fogle says. "Particularly in the IT space, I think there's a natural progression to do better. As technology moves forward, efficiency is part of that."

As use of IT has expanded, energy efficiency gains have (almost) kept up with the increase in data centers needed to provide that computing power. However, in a low- or no-carbon future, every industry will need to do better, including IT.

Fortunately, Fogle and Frey say, there are substantial opportunities to reduce energy use in the IT space with currently available technologies.

Server capacity: An untapped source for cost and energy savings

According to research from the Uptime Institute, which conducts annual data center surveys, 40 percent of installed servers are more than 5 years old. Those servers use 66 percent of data center power while performing less than 7 percent of the work.

The bulk of server lifecycle energy consumption is during the use phase, so companies can gain significant energy efficiency by replacing equipment at the right time. But, even during the use phase, data centers can achieve sizable energy savings.

For example, Frey says, "Customer data centers have lots more equipment than they need because they often are operating at very low utilization levels." He notes that in many data centers, more than 20 percent of data center equipment is powered up and doing no work. By solving what he calls the zombie server challenge, operators can power down unused equipment, which not only saves energy but reduces cooling demand and operating costs and can allow data centers to do more work in a smaller physical footprint.

Even the equipment that is doing work isn't working up to its capacity. Fogle cites estimates that most servers operate at 10 percent with a single workload and up to 30 percent with virtualization, which allows one server to handle multiple workloads.

"This inefficiency extends beyond compute but also to the cooling and power distribution infrastructures," Frey says, noting that HPE has found that organizations typically use only about 40 percent of their installed storage capacity. In addition, he says, "the average data center has over twice the cooling it needs for the installed IT equipment, often because of resilience requirements." 

Munther Salim, HPE strategist and director of data center technology, notes that HPE equipment is designed to run in ambient air temperature up to 95 degrees, if necessary, but is certified to the ASHRE standard of 81 degrees for continuous operation, and that data centers are often kept much cooler than modern servers require.

One of the obstacles to efficiency is misaligned goals. "You have folks in organizations that have different incentives," Fogle says. An IT professional who gets frantic calls when servers don't function as expected has incentives to build redundancy into the equipment and keep temperatures artificially low, as a form of insurance. Sustainability isn't as high a priority as uptime and latency. 

It is imperative that the operational efficiency of the data center, which HPE refers to as the data center management pyramid, is considered seriously in any quest for sustainability. Optimizing data center operations, including staffing and organizational training, documentation and procedures, aged infrastructure, and maintenance, will lead to an efficient operation.

Still, Fogle is optimistic that the IT profession will see the benefits of sustainability. "There is a lot of financial benefit that the IT manager can potentially get by being energy efficient," he says. For example, suppose you have 10,000 units of work to do. If you used to need 100 servers to complete the job and now you need 50, you're saving more than energy costs. Doing more with fewer servers yields savings in software licensing and hardware maintenance as well. According to EPA figures, matching capacity to workload saves $500 in energy, $500 in licensing, and $1,500 in maintenance per year per server.

And efficiency can also boost employee satisfaction. "Most young professionals don't want to be in a data center chasing down equipment that has failed, especially when they have no idea where it is or why it failed," Frey says. "They want to be doing high-value work that helps their company seize new business opportunities."

Within data center operations, Fogle points out some easy ways to reduce energy use. "The first one is obviously to have Energy Star equipment," he says. After that, "a lot of the easy stuff is based on airflow management: keeping the hot air where it can be taken away, bringing in the cold air, not having them mix." For instance, installing blanking panels to separate hot and cool airflow and even binding power cords more tightly can reduce the energy needed to keep the data center cool. Once the quick wins and best practices are implemented, data centers should focus on more rewarding opportunities, such as free cooling.

Fogle points to the evolution of power management as another promising avenue for resource conservation in data centers. Today's Energy Star products include fine-grained power management features, so operators can tune the systems to their workloads and power down to lower energy consumption levels in micro-steps without affecting performance. The challenge is to educate IT managers so they take advantage of energy-saving features. "That's one area we've seen where there could be a massive amount of improvement," Fogle says.

How organizations can foster sustainable IT

Fostering sustainable IT within an enterprise can be as simple as improving communication about sustainability goals and as innovative as collocating data centers to conserve and reuse energy.

"The hardware gets you to a certain point, but there's a lot that you as the operator can do," Fogle says. "Right now, what we often see and hear from our partners is that there is a lack of communication between different groups," he says. Facilities, sustainability, and IT management all have different goals, and failure to collaborate on sustainability leads to lost opportunities to gain energy efficiency. Getting everyone in the room together to figure out how to help each other meet their goals can yield significant advances in sustainable IT.

Data center IT and facilities stakeholders need to see on a single pane of glass key performance indicators for sustainability, such as capacity management, consumption and utilization, power usage effectiveness, water usage effectiveness, and carbon usage effectiveness. One way to do that is by using data center infrastructure management and software-defined data center, or digital twin, technologies. Additionally, AI can play a vital role in predictive maintenance, since maintenance tasks can be scheduled and prioritized based on data collected in real time.

Sustainability doesn't have to be a high hill to climb. For example, according to Fogle and Frey, one of the best ways to optimize data centers is to move from embedded locations to purpose-built facilities. "The more your data center operations are in buildings or parts of buildings that are built especially for that, the more efficient they tend to be," Fogle says. For most organizations, the ideal solution will be a hybrid of different modes tailored to their needs. Adding colocation, cloud computing, or an off-site data center to the mix can yield significant energy savings.

Plus, moving to purpose-built data centers creates opportunities for another energy-saving strategy: alignment between the data center and its surroundings. For example, Fogle notes that some data centers in Iceland just use the cold ambient air to provide cooling.

Companies can also collocate other resources with data centers. "We see instances in Europe where customers take the warm water or heat that's coming off IT to provide heating for greenhouses," Frey says. HPE has put this principle into practice, partnering with the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Daimler AG to use Daimler's fuel cells to turn power from nearby solar and wind sources into a reliable data center power source.

Many of the sustainable IT solutions needed to reduce energy consumption are already available. All that's required is the will to use them. "The hardware gets you to a certain point, but there's a lot that you as the operator can do," Fogle says. "I think of that as low-hanging fruit."


This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.