Could Data Centers Become Black Sheep?

Could they? Could it be out of Vogue to operate your own data center? Current developments in Corporate Social Responsibility and a maturing data center marketplace are starting to drive these changes.

For many, this could be a discussion about the pink elephant in the room. Data centers have been, and continue to be a requirement for businesses around the world. We rely more heavily every day on systems and the applications they run. Those applications run on servers and use storage subsystems; all of which are connected with networking devices. Collectively, we call this the “IT Load” for a data center.

The root question is not whether a data center is required. The obvious answer is: Yes! The real question is: Do I need to operate my own data center? But we will get to answer that question in a minute.

Data Center Energy Consumption

Data centers are consuming a larger percentage of the world’s energy every day. Our growing appetite will continue to take a toll on natural resources. In 2007, the EPA issued (for some) an eye-opening report on data center consumption and potential areas of efficiency.

While the report is a bit dated (2007), the core data still holds true today. The majority of the report is focused on projections and potential areas of efficiency. In 2011, Jonathan Koomey issued an updated report on the findings.

In his report, he noted that data center power consumption did not grow as strongly as the EPA projected. By 2010, global data center energy consumption hit 1.3% while in the US that number rose to 2%. Those are still very significant numbers.

What is Missing?

To add more fuel to the figures, a significant number of “facilities” are missing. Most notably missing from these findings is the energy consumption by the myriad of smaller “data centers”. While many would not call them data centers, they still serve the same purpose of housing servers, storage and networking equipment. These are smaller closets, rooms and labs. It may be as small as a server and switch under a desk to a rack or two of gear in a closet to a 1,000 sqft room. It is much harder to pin down the power consumed by each of these smaller locations. If you consider that these are the common solution for Small and Medium Businesses (SMB), the aggregate consumption is significant.

Potential Impact

Increasing the efficiency of the physical data center is a great start. There are many opportunities to improve the efficiency of power and cooling systems. People have focused on increasing the efficiency of power and cooling systems for years. Many of the solutions are simple to implement and make a significant impact. While others take quite a bit of work, expertise and money. And there are many brilliant minds around the world that are currently working on this very challenge.

However, the largest potential impact may come from the IT load itself. For the majority of IT loads, the equipment is not used efficiently. Server, storage and network utilization figures are much lower than they could be. Servers are designed (from an energy perspective) for high utilization. One look at the power supply power curve for a server supports this. On the server, processor utilization rates commonly peak at 20-30% with average utilization in the 5-10% range. In addition, the current implementation rates for virtualization are still relatively low. The latest figures suggest that as many as 50% of servers are virtualized. Anecdotally, that figure still seems high. Regardless, pushing the implementation of virtualization to 80%+ would significantly reduce the overall power consumption…for the same IT workload.

Imagine reducing the US power consumption by a full 1%. The impact could be that significant.

Strategic and World-Class Expertise

Now back to the root question: Do you need to have your own data center? Before answering, two other questions will shed light on the answer. Is your organization in a position to operate your data center (100,000 sqft facility, 5,000 sqft room, closet, lab, etc) at a world-class level? Asked a different way: Is your organization willing to make the investment of installing a team of people to operate a world-class facility where it is their whole job, not just a line in the job description? Second, is operation of a data center strategic to your organization? We already covered that data centers are vitally important. So is electricity. Are you willing to make the investment in operating a data center that is unique and provides an advantage from your competition? Or are there alternatives that better fit the strategic direction of the organization?

The Solution

If you set personal beliefs, cultural norms and inertia aside, for most, the answer to these questions is no. There are viable alternatives today that offer the economics, flexibility and responsiveness. And the alternative data center providers do employ teams to ensure their facilities are world-class. Only those few with large-scale requirements or the uncommon corner case will still need to operate their own data center.

Cloud computing is just one of many ways to accomplish these objectives. Startups and others are already heading down this path unencumbered by cultural norms and inertia. The challenge for established organizations is how to effectively turn the corner.

Bottom Line: Most organizations are not in a position to efficiently operate a world-class data center and should look at alternative solutions. The data center provider market is mature and competitors are already heading down this path.


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