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Reprogram How You Work with IT

Managing energy costs in data centers requires coordination between FM and IT


Managing energy costs in data centers requires coordination between FM and IT.

Data centers are filled with sleek, sophisticated technology designed by sharp minds to operate smoothly and consistently. The facilities that house these centers should be run with the same level of smarts.

Don’t let common obstacles and energy-sucking practices get in the way of your plan to reduce energy and cut costs. Recognize the challenges that block efficiency in data centers and outthink them.

Obstacles to Efficiency
While outdated servers or airflow problems might seem like the most obvious culprits, inefficiency in data centers can often be blamed on the relationship between facilities and IT departments. Lack of communication and split incentives among stakeholders can thwart efficiency, turning what should be a sounding board into a brick wall.

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Click here to read about the Top 12 Ways to Decrease the Energy Consumption of Your Data Center.

“The biggest problem I see is resistance to change,” says David Seger, principal mechanical technologist at Englewood, CO-based CH2M Hill/IDC Architects. “Facility managers can propose changes, like increasing air temperatures, that might be able to improve energy efficiency, but the IT people may not be as open to it, especially if they don’t see the power bill.”

When FM and IT don’t collaborate, time and money are sacrificed. “If the production or IT group goes and buys servers, they may never bother to tell the facilities group they are coming. Suddenly, facilities has to install them and figure out how to get power or enough cooling to the servers, and it’s the middle of the budget cycle,” says Seger, who knows that facility budgets leave little room for the unexpected.

Steve Ryan, program lead for data center and IT efficiency outreach at EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, views collaboration between IT and FM as essential. “If those groups don’t combine forces, the efficiency measures won’t be implemented in the data center. They have to work together to reap the benefits of reducing the operating budget,” says Ryan.

His associate, Robert Huang, senior associate at consulting firm Cadmus, agrees that strained or nonexistent communication between groups can be a huge obstacle for both parties, but sees ways to work around it. Rather than pointing fingers, the groups need to recognize their lack of communication and address it proactively.

“We had a situation where monitoring turned out to be very important for this relationship. The IT heads never would have allowed the facilities team to fiddle with the HVAC to make it more efficient if we hadn’t put monitoring equipment in there to assure them the server inlet temperatures were going to remain in the range they wanted,” says Huang.

Other obstacles to efficiency are less interpersonal and more mechanical. Paul Vaccaro, technical program manager for infrastructure projects at Intel, finds the decision between facility upgrades vs. new construction to be a major challenge. Finding downtime to retrofit is a struggle, and older buildings aren’t always equipped to meet the needs of evolving technology.

“There are a lot of demands from new computing models that are very different in terms of density from what we’ve had in the past,” says Vaccaro. “Blade servers, new chassis, integrated components – all of these impact the design and operation of the data center. One of the biggest challenges is that FMs and IT managers don’t necessarily have a lifecycle process for managing the equipment.”

Knowing when your systems have outlived their efficiency is key to running a smarter data center.

Another factor is adopting the “building as an air handler” approach to design.

“I’m astonished at how often I see poor airflow separation,” says Vaccaro. According to Seger, other energy-sucking mistakes include the “classics” – operating comatose servers and ignoring air filter changes at appropriate intervals for a given facility. Over-provisioned cooling and stranded electrical capacity are more obstacles to consider if you’re fine-tuning your data center.

Overcome Split Incentives
To tackle these common challenges, manage the split incentives between IT and facility departments and take a frank look at processes. Encouragement from facility owners is also important.

“A lot of it comes down to communication,” says Seger. “We’re all providing a service of delivering something to somebody who’s paying us. If we all work together, we can do it very efficiently and increase our bottom line,” he adds, noting that some of his clients have enforced procedures like requiring FM signatures on large capital outlays or only allowing facilities staff to install IT equipment in order to accurately track load.


A few simple ideas can help bridge the gap between IT and FM groups who need to get together for the sake of efficiency and costs:

  • Implement processes that demand communication and require sign-off by parties who will be affected.
  • Research and create lifecycle processes for FM and IT equipment. Review maintenance schedules periodically based on monitoring.
  • Get buy-in from the top down.

To get airflow management right, you have to know your needs. Monitoring and benchmarking are seminal to improving efficiency at all types of facilities. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” says Vaccaro. “It comes down to understanding what the airflow demand is in a facility, and operating around that.”

He recommends using tools like computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis to get a snapshot of how air moves through the data center. He adds that if that isn’t within the facility manager’s core competency, many engineering firms can provide the service for a reasonable price. Having certain technologies in-house can be helpful, though.

“You have to know what’s happening. You have to monitor,” says Seger. “Using dashboards, DCIM [Data Center Infrastructure Management], energy power monitoring – having those systems in place to a granularity that fits your business needs will help you see where energy is used. When you can identify all the energy users, you can target the bigger ones,” he explains.

With measurements and figures procured, facility managers should also compare their data centers to industry standards. “ASHRAE has some great standards available with parameters for operating your data center from a temperature and humidity standpoint. I think some people aren’t even close to some of those upper limits and thresholds,” says Vaccaro.

Reduce Energy and Emissions
Methods to reduce energy use in data centers depend on the facility. “Because all data centers aren’t the same, it’s really hard to say what you can do to increase efficiency,” says Seger. Much depends on the site, the load, and even the local climate.

A holistic approach to energy reduction is what Seger calls “cascading energy efficiency.” For example, hot aisle/cold aisle containment can reduce energy, “but adding containment alone doesn’t do much for efficiency,” says Seger. “If you can control your fans so they supply only the amount of air the servers need, you save fan energy. And if you can then increase the air temperature going to the servers to what the servers need, and if you can increase the chilled water temperature, it cascades all the way down into the chiller plant.” He advises taking a look at the fundamentals and the possible cascade impact to know if you will actually save energy. “If somebody says ‘Raise a setpoint in your data center and it will save you energy,’ you may save you energy, you may not,” he says.

Consider how you can match these principles to your particular facility:

Monitor your building and IT consumption. “Through the years, monitoring that integrates what is going on with your IT equipment, cooling, and power equipment has really taken off,” says Huang. “DCIM allows for benefits beyond energy efficiency; it allows you to manage your assets and to plan for the future.”

Software and monitoring dashboards help facility managers track the important numbers in real time, and more and more developers are offering DCIM products, which will eventually even out prices for this vital tool. Smart sensors, smart PDUs, temperature and pressure sensors, and CFD modeling are other technologies that help you know what is going on in your data center. “Being able to manage down at the IT equipment level is always a very important part of the facility equation,” says Vacarro. New, ENERGY STAR-rated IT equipment can also keep energy use at optimal levels. Check out the sidebar on page 36 for a list of efficiency strategies that can save energy in your data center.

Never neglect airflow. No discussion on data centers and energy efficiency is complete without several airflow reminders. Consider blanking panels in server racks, conduits and cutouts, hot/cold aisle configurations, and recalibrating CRAC or CRAH units. Change your air filters according to your specific system’s requirements.

Stay on top of trends and technology. Be aware of new technologies that could one day benefit your data center. Huang mentions investigating the economy of colocation facilities (“data center hotels”) and using Cloud computing to offload IT services. Indirect evaporative cooling should also be on your radar. “We’ve used some new indirect evaporative cooling units, and they use 50% less energy without adding any moisture to the airstream. They’re almost as efficient as a free air cooling,” says Vacarro. He adds that fuel cells and rear-door heat exchangers are promising solutions. Chilled beams, immersion, and liquid cooling are also becoming more popular in data centers. A recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that one data center saved an estimated $200,000 per year in operating costs with a water cooling system.

Because smart energy management in data centers is a matter of cooperation among departments, don’t hesitate to reach out to your peers and others. “There are so many resources out there,” says Seger. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”