EPA Says American Data Centers Can Cut Power Use Dramatically
August 6, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As instructed to do by the U.S. Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency has made its formal report to lawmakers regarding the energy consumption of servers, storage, and other gear at the data centers in America. The EPA has been instrumental in getting Americans to use energy-efficient appliances and in getting manufacturers to build them through its Energy Star program, and it is hoping to do the same in data centers.
Back in December 2006, Congress passed a law and President Bush signed it requiring the EPA to report back to Congress within 180 days with an analysis the use of servers and related infrastructure and their power consumption in the United States. EPA was also instructed to forecast the impact of using energy-efficient technologies in data centers to reduce energy demands and 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. This is exactly what the EPA’s Energy Star program did for appliances and consumer electronics.
Not all servers are in data centers, so to get a sense of the scope of the problem, the EPA had to get a grip on how much power servers were consuming and then, for those in data centers, how much juice these centers burned as well. According to the report issued last Friday, America’s server consumed about 61 billion kilowatt-hours of juice in 2006, about 1.5 percent of total electricity consumption in the country and representing about $4.5 billion in costs. Servers ate about as much electricity as all of the color televisions in the country, and about the same amount of power as 5.8 million typical households. This is about twice the amount of electricity that servers and data centers consumed in 2000.
The EPA said in its report to Congress that under current trends–meaning no one does much about energy efficiency–by 2011 electricity usage by servers and data centers could nearly double again, to more than 100 billion kilowatts and $7.4 billion in annual electricity bills. Perhaps more significantly, these machines put a peak load of 7 gigawatts on the North American electric grid in 2006, and this could grow to 12 gigawatts by 2011. That was 15 baseload power plants in 2006, and would require another 10 plants to cover the peak load.
Looking out ahead, EPA put together a few scenarios to show how we might cope with this increase in power demand for servers. These are shown in the graph below:
If you just plot out current electricity usage trends in data centers and among free-standing departmental servers, you end up with demand for over 120 billion kilowatt-hours of juice by 2011. Using some of the current efficiency method available today–server consolidation enabled by virtualization, energy efficient multicore processors, and so forth–still puts the country at above 100 billion kilowatt-hours by 2011. Under an “improved operation” scenario, which means doing very little capital investment but changing the way servers are used, the EPA reckons that the country could make a big, quick dent in energy usage, but then eventually get pulled up by the server sprawl curve and track parallel with the historical electricity usage curve to hit around 85 billion kilowatt-hours of annual electricity consumption four years from now. This scenario means doing server consolidation, eliminating unused boxes, using some energy efficient designs, turning on power management features in the hardware and software, getting disk arrays that use less energy, and rejiggering data centers so airflow is more efficient.
In the “best practice” scenario that EPA cooked up, if every data center in the country and every server was designed and deployed with the most energy-efficient technologies available today, we might actually get on a declining curve, compressing electricity usage down to 45 billion kilowatt-hours. This scenario means doing a moderate level of server consolidation, aggressively adopting energy efficient servers, and doing a moderate level of storage consolidation; it also implies improving transformers, power supplies, chillers, fans, and pumps in the data center.
And in the “state-of-the-art” scenario, which is the absolute best case scenario, servers and storage are aggressively consolidated, and power management spans the entire data centers, from applications right up to the ceiling. It also means direct liquid cooling of servers and storage, and radical changes in the way that power is distributed in data centers.
With the federal government consuming about one-tenth of the electricity used by servers in the United States, the EPA is recommending first and foremost that Uncle Sam lead by example. (That’s easy to say, but hard to do. What Congressional leader is going to recommend the wholesale upgrading of the government’s data centers? Who is going to pay for it?) The EPA is also recommending the standardization of energy performance metrics for data centers, but acknowledges that given the diversity of electronics and configurations, this seems a tough task. The government agency is asking that chief executive officers conduct an energy efficiency assessment under the Department of Energy’s Save Energy Now program, which would create tools to help data center managers deploy best practices and measure their progress toward better efficiency. And, not surprisingly, the EPA wants to investigate the possibility of getting Energy Star ratings on the equipment inside data centers. This latter idea seems like a no-brainer, but you can bet that IT equipment vendors are going to be of two minds on this one. They like to brag about bandwidth and throughput for their gear, but they don’t necessarily like to admit that the performance of their gear always comes at a cost.