Uncle Sam Pushes Energy Star Ratings for Servers
Published: January 11, 2007
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Whenever the government gets involved in a problem, then we know we are in big trouble and that it is probably a worse situation than we imagined. Just as the year was ended, two events in the political arena in the United States indicated that the problem of energy consumption in the data center is, well, heating up. While the entry of the government and its regulations is not generally perceived as a good thing by many people, in this case, some government regulation and encouragement is just what the data center manager ordered.
The first event occurred on December 20, when President Bush signed H.R. 5646, a bill in the House of Representatives that passed 417 to four in July 2006 and identical to a Senate bill that passed unanimously in the Senate on December 7. This bill directs the Environmental Protection Agency to study the energy consumption of Federal and private computer data centers. It was sponsored by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including representatives Michael Rogers (R-MI) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and senators George Allen (R-VA), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The law requires the EPA to report back to Congress within 180 days with a report that analyzes the use of servers and related infrastructure and their power consumption in the United States and the impact of using energy-efficient technologies in data centers to reduce energy demands. The law also asks the EPA to make recommendations for the formation of incentives and voluntary programs for the IT industry and consumers that could spur the use of energy-efficient computer designs, much like the EPA's Energy Star program does for appliances and consumer electronics. (You can read the full text of the law at the Library of Congress.)
"It is the sense of Congress that it is in the best interest of the United States for purchasers of computer servers to give high priority to energy efficiency as a factor in determining best value and performance for purchases of computer servers," the bill concludes.
The issue is a big one. As business are commercialized on the Internet, the number of servers and the data centers that house them have exploded. Energy costs are going to go up, probably not down, and the efficiency of the data center as a whole is pretty poor. According to some estimates made independently by Sun and the Uptime Institute, only about 40 percent of the power that comes into a data center actually gets used for computing. The remainder is used up in inefficient power supplies, moving cold air around, dumping heat, and running the HVAC equipment. This year (meaning 2007), according to estimates by IDC, the cost of spending on new servers in the United States will be roughly equal to the cost of supplying energy to the existing base of installed servers and cooling their data centers at a little more than $20 billion each. While this is admittedly something of an apples-to-applesauce comparison, the idea is that from here on out, servers costs will be flat to down but power costs will continue to grow as electricity gets more expensive and as more and more machinery is added at companies. This problem is not going away, and in fact, it is going to get a lot worse.
The EPA was not sitting around waiting for the law to pass, by the way. It has been working to improve the efficiency of power supplies for several years, and has spent the past year working closely with server maker Sun Microsystems, chip maker Advanced Micro Devices, and power companies to promote the idea of something like the Energy Star program for servers. With the Energy Star program, vendors' products are rated and ranked by their power efficiency, and then the vendors, the government, and the power companies work together to sponsor rebates to customers who buy energy-efficient servers. Pacific Gas and Electric, which is the power company in Silicon Valley, started giving such rebates on its own beginning last fall, offering companies who bought energy-efficient servers a rebate of a few hundred bucks if they showed they were consolidated workloads from older and less-efficient iron to new boxes. Sun, which has been trying to leverage power efficiency with its "Niagara" Sparc and "Galaxy" Opteron server lines, was the first in line to offer such rebates, but the company's customers are not the only ones who can take advantage of the rebates.
On December 28, after the holidays and after President Bush enacted the law, Andrew Fanara, the EPA's Energy Star program manager, sent out a letter informing server makers as well as big government computing centers of the EPA's mandate. Fanara also explained that governments in Europe and China were also keen on promoting energy efficiency in servers and in "supporting the development of harmonized energy efficiency measures with the EPA."
He also explained that EPA was seeking to develop something akin to an Energy Star rating system for servers--which is a bit tricky given all of the options within and peripherals you can attach to a server--as well as a separate rating for the data centers themselves. You can have an efficient server and a poorly designed data center, after all, and still end up wasting a lot more energy. (You can read the full text of Fanara's letter here.) To get more information on the server and data center initiatives, go to www.energystar.gov/datacenters.
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