IT managers might soon find use for the wireless ZigBee protocol to manage, automate and control their complex data centre environments, according to the head of Exegin Technologies Ltd.

The Vancouver-based company – a long standing and active member of the ZigBee Alliance – has recently announced the certification of its ZigBee stack software and its bridging and gateway technology as a ZigBee PRO compliant platform. The certification means that Exegin can now develop products that use ZigBee PANs with the assurance that its devices will be compatible with other third-party ZigBee products.

The ZigBee wireless standard is a protocol stack for the IEEE 802.15.4 radio standard, and is governed by the ZigBee Alliance, which is comprised of several hundred companies around the globe.

“The thrust of the alliance is to develop a technology for sensor control networks and allow the members of the alliance to identify niches within that space and provide products that have a very high probability of interoperating with each other,” Leslie Mulder, president of Exegin, said. “Because of this certification, a load controller from Phillips is 99.9 per cent guaranteed to interoperate with a gateway from Exegin.”

The technology, which began development early this decade, burst onto the scene in 2004 and was billed as a home automation technology. And while companies have been working to create ZigBee-based home control systems – including applications for automated lighting, HVAC, and audio/video devices – Mulder said that the technology has entered the business world as well.

“The real sweet spot for ZigBee right now is in the utility space, specifically in what’s called the smart energy space,” he said. “Utility companies, especially in the U.S., are exploring ways to manage power to the home.”

For example, Mulder said, companies are developing smart meters to replace to the standard glass meters found outside of many homes. Using an on-board processor and a ZigBee network hooked in with different appliances throughout the household, utility companies can determine the peak times for washing and drying machine usage, among other devices.

“In the smart energy space, power companies are killing themselves trying to figure out how to spread the load of power consumption around,” Mulder said. If they know when people are using the machines, they can adjust their pricing strategies accordingly (by raising the prices) and hopefully reduce consumption at peak times, he added. And with power and cooling costs becoming increasingly important in today’s modern data centres, Mulder said that IT might soon consider ZigBee applications to help them manage their environments.

“The advantages of looking at a ZigBee-based control system is going to be that it saves you money in terms of your deployment costs and cabling runs,” he said. “And as with any new technology, you’ll also probably get advantages in terms of manageability. Whenever a new technology is brought to the table, people are going to look at the front-end again and the management control systems are going to be redeveloped to give you better control.”

Using ZigBee to detect heating levels and automatically adjust cooling needs might also be on the horizon for IT managers, he said.

To better control energy consumption in its data centers, Microsoft has deployed 2,000 internally built temperature and humidity sensors last July in several of its facilities. The sensors use ZigBee technology to transmit the data to databases that analyze the information. Data centre administrators can look at a graphical image of the data center that is colour-coded based on temperature and at a glance see areas that are getting hot.

Ultimately, Microsoft would like to be able to distribute computational load in the data centers based on the temperature of servers, and it is beginning to work on such a system, said Jie Liu, a Microsoft researcher working on the deployment. For now, Microsoft is in part using the data it collects to test out information that vendors supply. “We can understand the operating conditions and compare them with the vendor specs,” Liu said. Server vendors typically advise users to set operating conditions based on scenarios that essentially never happen during normal operation, such as 100 per cent CPU use, he said. By testing out the real operating condition requirements for servers, Microsoft can potentially save money if it discovers, for example, that it doesn’t need to keep the room quite so cool.

Microsoft is also working on using the temperature data it collects from the sensors to control fan speeds on the servers and to control the air-conditioning systems, he said.

The company has designed its own sensors. They use ZigBee, a short-range standard wireless technology that creates a mesh network to pass the data along. One of the shortcomings of ZigBee in this application is that it can handle only very small amounts of data, he said.

With files from Nancy Gohring, IDG News Service (Seattle Bureau)

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