Canada faces a great big green IT decision

Microsoft is one of the latest companies to attempt to lure in those looking for ways to go green and reap the cost savings of a more energy-efficient data centre, courtesy of the virtualization and power management features of its upcoming Windows Server 2008 release, but Canadian industry analysts are unsure how enthusiastically Canadians are actually going after the green data centre just yet.

“We are seeing a growing number of Canadian organizations that are looking at their data centres and reevaluating their data centre strategy,” said IDC Canada director of research for Canadian infrastructure hardware Jason Bremner. “But green is not the primary reason for this. The cost of operating some data facilities can be quite high, so people are re-thinking the technologies so that they can squeeze out some cost savings, not necessarily because they want to adhere to environmental friendliness.”

Said Bill Laing, general manager of the Windows Server division at Microsoft: “Eighteen months ago, people never brought up power. Now that’s dramatically changed.” While most companies are probably wary of taking on the great expense of retrofitting a data centre, many of the earlier-generation data centres will be coming to the end of their life soon, according to Bremner, which he believes will speed up re-thinking data centre hardware and set-up.

Another upcoming change in the Canadian energy landscape that data centre administrators might have to take into account is Ontario’s decommissioning of the last of its coal-based generation plants, said Bremner. “It’ll be a couple of years before the next nuclear plant will be up, and they say there won’t be enough power,” he said.

In the United States, especially, said Aaron Hay, an analyst with Info-Tech Research in London, Ont. the energy crisis is also gearing up, with energy prices ever on the rise, since the country often uses oil as a power source.

“But we’re still years away from some Canadian companies being able to really reap the benefits of a green data centre—very few companies know how to move to a consolidated data centre as a whole,” said Hay.


Finding qualified professionals to run any data centres—let alone a green one—is another growing challenge. A Symantec survey released in October revealed that 52 per cent of data centres are understaffed, while 86 per cent of data centre administrators are unable to find qualified talent—let alone those schooled in green. “Despite increasing regulation, it’s becoming difficult to find that kind of operational experience,” said Mike Manos, Microsoft’s senior director of data centre services.

Data centre administrators are not used to an energy efficient culture, said Hay. Bremner agrees: “We’re not anywhere close to (pervasive green technology in data centres).”

Compounding the problem is lack of an official set of data provided by the vendors that can be used to compare the various energy consumptions of different companies’ data centre products. However, Hay expects that the green trend will eventually yield this guide—similar to the energy guide available on washers and driers—sometime in the next couple of years.

It might be up to the products themselves—servers with built-in power-gauging ability and power management-equipped software like Windows Server 2008—to push the trend along. Said Hay: “Lots of users maintain the factory default settings.”

The data centre administrator who wants to stay ahead of the game can implement servers that work smarter, not harder. “They need to have variable speeds and delivery systems so that they are efficient at different and partial loads,” said Microsoft green consultant Dave Ohara.

Plus, a software solution similar to Microsoft’s in-house monitoring software can track various power consumption vectors. While it’s up to the server and processor OEMS to craft specific solutions, said Ohara, Windows Sever 2008, for example, has the capability to automatically turn off cores or devices or run a power-monitoring solution. He suggests keeping track of your power usage as specifically as possible (which includes digging up those historical records) so that power-saving goals can be set and the results of any data centre green-ing tracked.


Ontario’s City of Stratford is one organization that has gone green—incidentally. Ron Roy, director of IT services for the City of Stratford, seems to be a typical business-savvy green data center implementer. Said Roy: “We strive to be a green municipality, but when it comes to the tech side, there’s no black-and-white requirements. We tried to get operational cost savings; however, an added spin-off of improved operating costs and decreased heat and power usage is, by definition, a de-facto green environment.”

He recently did a virtualization revamp, switching out four physical servers in favour of a virtualized set on a Dell PowerEdge blade server running Microsoft NT Server 4.0, and later Microsoft’s Server 2003 and Virtual Server 2005.

The venture into virtualization was typical in that it was done in a “low-priority” area, but it paid off, with reductions of 1500 BTUs per minute, heat dissipation of 6K per minute, and 450 kilowatts per unit. It’s also resulted in significant cost savings, which was tricky for an organization housing its data centre within a heritage building with limited cooling power and customizability.

This type of tangible savings can go over really well with stakeholders, too, according to Hay. He said, “It shows specific savings, rather than ‘We’ll plant a tree for…’ Pointing out each kilowatt hour saved or how many tonnes of carbon emissions have been averted is much more meaningful.”