Living happily with your existing data center

Innovative use of available data-center resources, and how to make incremental changes to extend the life of existing facilities, were the main agenda items at this week’s Data Center World trade show.

The show was hosted by AFCOM, an organization for data center professionals.

Speakers and attendees gave various perspectives on how to keep an aging data center alive. Donna Manley, IT senior director of computer operations at the University of Pennsylvania, has adapted martial arts principles to help reengineer her data center. As a second-degree back belt in Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial arts discipline, Manley said one purpose of martial arts training is to allow a person to push herself past pre-prescribed limits.

The regular setting of measurable challenges, and the ability to break techniques into manageable pieces, are martial arts principles that easily apply to data center operations, Manley said. These include: the methodical handling of systems issues, sustained commitment to improvement and the ability to maximize technology resources. All of these lead to greater efficiencies and enhance IT’s ability to meet defined business objectives, she said.

Manley’s IT staff headcount projection for the next three years is flat, she said. “I need to get the staff I have to come out of their comfort zones and challenge them to do things they’ve never done before. The attitude requirements developed for martial arts are now used every day in properly maintaining and operating the data center.”

Energy efficiency was also on the agenda at the show. There will need to be a shift in the traditional disconnect between IT and facilities for both to work toward a common goal of reducing environmental impact, said Andrew Fanara, a member of the Energy Star product specifications development team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Use of renewable resources to power data centers will remain limited for the foreseeable future, Fanara said, keeping demand for traditionally generated electricity growing, and “businesses will need to find ways to buy themselves time if they want to avoid an energy straightjacket.”

The EPA’s August report about data centers in the United States put the IT industry on notice that “energy issues abound” that are “putting stress on a fairly ancient infrastructure grid,” he said.

Data centers used 61 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year, the report said, accounting for 1.5% of all consumption in the country. The federal sector added another 6 million kilowatt hours, bringing the total cost of electricity for data centers in the United States last year to $5 billion.

At the current level of energy consumption growth, the EPA predicts data center energy usage will double in the next five years.

Hot racks of servers and their associated hot spots inside data centers, and brown-outs or black-outs associated with peak-time demand in high-use regions such as California, have businesses more concerned than ever about down time. This is particularly true of facilities using only traditional computing room air conditioning (CRAC) equipment and that have limited or no backup power.

A year ago, AFCOM predicted that over the next five years power failures and limits on power availability will result in operations outages at more than 90% of companies.

According to a study by technology research firm Opengate Data Systems and commissioned by power vendor Active Power, a data center with 5-kilowatt server racks can shut down within three minutes of a power outage.

That is the worst-case scenario, said Andrew Kutz, an analyst with consultancy Data Center Strategies, a subsidiary of the Burton Group in Midvale, Utah. Most companies have diesel generators or some other means of backup, even if it can take a few minutes for the backup power to turn on.

Nevertheless, Kutz said, some enterprises are concerned enough about power outages to take steps such as installing dual power sources. Many shops are investigating cooling technology that can augment existing CRAC systems, and are also looking into enhanced system monitoring products.

Cooling is just one factor in extending a data center’s life, however. “Efficiency is not going to extend the life of a data center nearly as much as effectiveness,” Kutz said. “You need to make sure the data center is highly effective. You have to increase utilization.”

Virtualization is the top strategy today for reducing server sprawl and increasing utilization rates. But the technique can contribute to power management problems as facilities struggle to accommodate peak loads of highly virtualized machines, said Russell Senesac, data center systems manager for American Power Conversion. The use of capacity planning software can ensure IT loads are properly distributed and can help IT staffers make educated decisions about where to add capacity.

“You can have a huge pile of the most efficient parts, but [can] put them together in a highly inefficient fashion,” Senesac said.

Darrell Dunn is a freelance reporter based in Fort Worth, Texas, with 20 years of experience covering business technology and enterprise IT. Contact him at

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