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While outdated servers or airflow problems might seem like the most obvious culprits, inefficiency in data centers can often be blamed on the relationship between facilities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.
“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.