Imagine being given a credit card with a seemingly infinite limit, and you never have to pay a bill. That, essentially, is the scenario many data center managers have enjoyed for the last decade or more when it comes to electricity-use oversight. Now, with energy prices climbing and utility capacities at their limits, that bill appears to be coming due.

Data centers have been significant to corporate operations for decades. But the last 10 years have seen their importance rise exponentially, as both consumer-facing retail sites and back office, Web-services-based operations have become critical ingredients in bottomline success. Server-design advances in that same time period have driven hardware prices down and enabled managers to fit more computing power within existing building footprints. These factors have combined to create power-density levels that the facilities’ original designers never anticipated.

Hardware power consumption is the tip of the energy iceberg in today’s data centers. Added servers create enormous cooling loads, with electricity demands that can equal or exceed that of the servers. Combine climbing consumption with skyrocketing utility rates, and you will understand why, suddenly, corporate accountants are beginning to care about their IT departments’ energy costs.

Though it may seem unusual in these days, data center managers remain surprisingly unaware of their facilities’ energy use.

“No IT manager I’ve ever spoken to has seen their power costs,” said Mark Bramfitt, senior project manager in Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) customer energy efficiency group, who works with companies in the information-intensive high-tech and healthcare sectors. In fact, he said, data center power costs generally are not even included in IT operating budgets. Instead, these expenses are generally wrapped into overall office-facility figures, so IT planners have no way of understanding the energy-use consequences of their data center design decisions.

Green Grid focuses on this lack of information among IT professionals as one aspect of its efforts to improve data-center efficiency. The group was formed in February 2007 by representatives from IT-industry suppliers including HP, Dell, Microsoft, Intel, Sun Microsystems and AMD. Membership now stands at more than 100.

“One of the bottomline issues is the whole idea of awareness,” said Larry Lamers, member of technical staff, Office of the CTO at VMware and Green Grid director. “You’ve got this guy in accounting who pays the bill and an IT manager who doesn’t know how much electricity he’s using.”

One of the first steps for managers seeking to reduce energy costs is to understand exactly where there electricity is going—a boon for contractors experienced in submetering installations, said Larry Vertal, a senior strategist at AMD and a Green Grid board member.

“Near term, there are opportunities already there in submetering work that’s sort of a ‘greenfield,’” he said. “Today, in most data centers, you do not have submetering going on. So you’ve got this really complex system, and all you really know is how much energy the equipment [in total] is using.”

Utility incentives

Utilities are ramping up incentive programs, encouraging customers to cut their data centers’ electricity consumption. PG&E, with a service territory that includes Silicon Valley, is leading the effort. But PG&E also is leading a consortium of electric utilities from across the country, providing outlines of its incentive efforts to those utilities interested in establishing their own data center-directed programs.

These incentives are arising as data center construction seems poised for a possible boom. Facilities constructed during the tech bubble of the late 1990s are stretched to capacity, and many organizations are consolidating operations into fewer, larger facilities. For example, Intel recently announced plans to consolidate its 133 data centers to eight high-density operations of approximately 300,000 square feet each. Similarly, HP announced it will be replacing more than 80 of its aging facilities with six new structures.

New data centers offer the greatest opportunities for reducing electricity use because the infrastructure retrofits needed for maximum efficiency improvements in existing facilities are simply too expensive. Issues such as rack arrangements, cooling-plant designs and power-distribution schemes are better addressed in new structures, which also can be planned for scalable future expansion.

Researchers are investigating a number of new power-distribution strategies that could change infrastructure planning even more, including high-voltage AC and DC approaches that may cut efficiency-sapping conversion losses. Staying on top of these and other advances—including the availability of local utility rebates and other financial incentives—can only help electrical contractors interested in pursuing data center projects.

“Then you’re providing a higher level of value to the client,” Bramfitt said, describing the premium services an educated contractor can offer in this high-end sector. “There are contractors in the Bay Area who are doing that, and they’re getting more business than they can handle.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.