Caring for data centres and … beef stew?

  • Even a chef takes greater care of changes when preparing beef stew
  • 5 critical steps in achieving greater energy efficiency in the data centre

Caring for data centres and … beef stew?ACHIEVING greater energy efficiency is a fairly common goal and certainly the subject is well covered in the press and by industry thought leaders.
However, I believe that in most enterprises the focus on energy efficiency isn’t system-oriented or holistic. In fact, I’m here to argue that most data centres pay less attention to the outcome of changes than a chef does when adding ingredients or spices to a beef stew.
1) Treating the data centre as a system
The idea of treating the data centre as a system isn’t new. In fact, Data Center Pulse published the Data Center Stack over four years ago, but the idea still hasn’t taken hold in most businesses.
Using a systems approach seems harder than the alternative. The assumption is, “If I use the systems approach, I’ll have to communicate, investigate, evaluate, etc., before I make a change or determine the scope of an opportunity.”
The aforementioned assumption is correct; however, just like effective change management and strong process, following a systems approach will likely lead to immediate and lasting benefits of efficiency and risk reduction (putting out fires before they start).
Using the systems approach will allow you to adopt strategies that have a holistic and lasting impact on the data centre system. Without a systems focus, you are just as likely to introduce inefficiency as you are to make a positive change.
A great example of making a change that would appear obvious on the surface is ‘raising the temperature.’
While it’s very often true that running at a higher temperature will introduce some efficiency gains, let’s look under the covers.
Increasing the temperature because the servers can handle higher heat makes sense as it means the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) works less, which in turn reduces your power use.
On the other hand, depending on your server mix and the consistency of your environmentals, you might actually be replacing one problem with another. Yes, you’re saving energy on HVAC, but your ICT gear might be using more energy to compensate for the higher heat.
It’s also true that you are introducing a potential risk that should your HVAC fail, you won’t have any stored cool air to keep the servers from overheating and shutting down.
This HVAC scenario is but one example of how making a seemingly obvious ‘positive’ change might actually do more harm than good. Using the Stack to evaluate the full system impact of changes is much more likely to lead you to make changes that actually reduce overall energy use, without introducing additional risk.
Caring for data centres and … beef stew?2) Embedding rewards
We all have a specific focus in mind when we’re working on something. We could be looking to make it faster or bigger. Maybe we want to reduce the cost of ownership or simplify how the customer uses a solution, but we don’t always look at how the solution might affect our use of power or energy.
In order for power use to become part of everything we do, our leaders must ingrain it. We can’t act wasteful and talk sustainability. Like customer service, it needs to become part of who you are. Only then does efficiency and sustainability become ingrained in the activities of the entire team and everything they do.
There are a number of ways leadership can help introduce or reinforce ideas and or new areas of focus. Demonstrating the importance through action is the best way for a leader to communicate, regardless of whether it’s ethics, customer service, or sustainability. While continuing to demonstrate it, the leader must also speak about it regularly.
Lastly, team members will truly internalise a new objective and set goals against that objective when it becomes part of their reward system.
Caveat on setting new goals for your team: Don’t over-emphasise the importance of efficiency or power savings over delivering a better product or service to the business. If your team believes that the one thing that will get them noticed is saving energy, they will naturally focus on that at the expense of other activities.
3) Keeping your eye on the ball
Regardless of the hype or reality of any specific new focus area, there is no changing the fact that for the vast majority of us, ‘saving energy’ isn’t in our job title. Our company isn’t a ‘saving energy for you’ company, therefore keeping perspective on those things that actually add new value to the business is critical.
In other words, be careful what you ask for and be cognisant of where and how your team members are focused on opportunities. Saving energy or writing efficient code is rarely the primary deliverable for a new application or service; so think requirements and innovation first, and power savings second or third.
4) Think sustainability
Most of us think of sustainability as saving a few gallons of gas or recycling cans and bottles. When it comes to data centres, there is much, much more to the story.
Sustainability is directly associated with conserving (reducing cost/ being greener – take your pick) and continuity (as in business continuity). When you plan sustainably, you are much more likely to build or use solutions that will stand the test of time, while also helping to maintain or improve your businesses corporate image.

Non-traditional examples of data centre sustainability:

You should build or lease facilities that can handle higher power density per square foot. The fewer buildings you have to build or lease the better, as it’s both green and financially sustainable for your business.
PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness), CUE (Carbon Usage Effectiveness), and WUE (Water Usage Effectiveness) are all great metrics for helping to drive the right behaviour.
The EU Data Centre Code of Conduct or The Green Grid Data Centre Maturity Model are also great tools to leverage.
Site location has a huge impact as well. Sustainability applies to your ability to maintain the flow of resources required to continue operations. If you build or buy in a place that needs water but might lose access, or where there isn’t a good pool of future employees to pick from, you’re running a risk.

5) Build power savings into your designs and purchasing processes
As I usually don’t suggest building your own facility, I do highly recommend that you work with partners which have demonstrated with verifiable metrics that they have an excellent track record of energy management and efficiency of use.
If you are going to build, there’s a long litany of considerations that you must make to ensure the entire data centre system is designed around efficient use of resource, especially power.
Keep in mind that every resource you use has an energy and or water factor associated with it. When you take that energy and water factor into account, you’ll understand the importance of efficiency and its associated impact on sustainability.
Purchasing should also be involved in your strategy to become more of an energy sipper than a guzzler. Purchasing doesn’t always have visibility into the underlying drivers for one product or service selection over another.
Helping them understand the value of the entire lifecycle and supply chain impact of each product or service choice will help them more effectively prioritise decisions against factors other than price.
It’s not just about ‘a’ technology
It would be nice if we could just buy cloud or lease data centre space and assume our work was done relative to gaining more efficiency and becoming a more responsible corporate citizen, but you can’t.
It takes much more than a focus on a specific service or technology; it takes a cradle-to-grave systems-oriented view of the entire IT/ data centre envelope.
Caring for data centres and … beef stew?Whether it’s beef stew or a data centre
Whether making a batch of stew or operating a data centre, the fact is, you can’t just add things to the recipe or change it without understanding the potential outcome.
In the case of beef stew, you actually have considerably more leeway than you do with a data centre, but it’s still a problem if you just change ingredient quantities, add things at the wrong time, or leave something critical out.
The end result is that the food won’t taste right. At least with stew you only invest US$20 and a few hours and then do it over again if it’s not right. It’s not so easy with a data centre.
Mark Thiele is the executive vice-president of Data Center Tech at Switch Communications. He is a long-time blogger and enthusiastic industry evangelist. This was first published as a blog here and is reprinted on DNA with his permission.
Previous Instalments:
Reducing IT fire-fighting and improving business agility
If the tech don’t fit, you must convict
Open source IT vs commercial IT: What’s your call?
I’ll get right on that, boss – data centre ownership
Mobility’s impact on your data centre decisions
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