An Invisible Super Power

By Russ Munyan | Jan 15, 2008
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There is a crisis in the world of data centers. In short, it is due to the electrical power demands of large modern data centers outpacing the abilities of their buildings and local electrical utilities to meet energy needs in a cost-effective manner. This is happening because information technology (IT) equipment manufacturers have done a truly amazing job producing high-density servers with increasingly greater computational abilities on steadily decreasing footprints. But this technological and industrial marvel has a downside: In addition to their high-density computing, modern high-density servers now draw unprecedented amounts of electrical power and put off equally unprecedented amounts of heat that must be vented and/or cooled.

“Virtually everyone involved in large-scale IT computing is now aware of the resulting temperature and cooling problems data centers are experiencing,” wrote Kenneth G. Brill of the Uptime Institute, which provides data center educational and consulting services. That “everyone” includes data center designers, equipment manufacturers (including IT and battery backup manufacturers), CIOs, IT directors, utility planners and data center operators—all of whom are talking about the issue. Electrical contractors (ECs) often are noticeably absent from those discussions.

Granted, ECs generally are not responsible for how much energy is consumed in buildings; they just run power to them, for now. Building owners and tenants determine the amount of power that is used and how that power is used. But electrical contractors need to be at least aware of, if not participating in, this conversation. If ECs are going to best serve their data center clients, they need to understand their issues and priorities. And after all, electricity is the business of electrical contractors. Surely they should be sufficiently lucid on this pressing topic to be a constructive part of the dialogue and to professionally serve the industry—not merely be disinterested vendors.

Nearly unfathomable reach

The world of modern data centers is truly amazing. It has a nearly incomprehensible reach. It is difficult to engage in commerce, hold a job, manage a home, have a bank account, pay bills, see a doctor, go to school, receive news or do most other things without support from data centers, which invisibly process much of the information in our world.

All but the smallest organizations have some kind of data center, and larger companies often have many tens, or even hundreds, of data centers. They range in size from small rooms (server closets) within a conventional building to large buildings (enterprise class data centers) up to several hundred thousand square feet in size. Some can house hundreds or thousands of IT devices.

But here is something that is relatively new and rather surprising: According to American Power Conversion, current site selection frequently is based on access to large amounts of low-cost electricity, although decisions about locating large data centers used to be based on factors such as physical security (i.e., not near places of physical risk, such as airport runways or places of potential cultural volatility).

Data centers operate almost entirely on electricity and can be more than 40 times as energy intensive as conventional office buildings, meaning large data centers more closely resemble industrial facilities than commercial buildings with respect to energy use. In fact, with the exception of heavy industries such as steel and aluminum, data centers are the most common and concentrated consumers of energy in the U.S. economy.

A standard data center is filled with rows of racks or cabinets that contain electronic equipment used for data processing (servers), data storage (storage equipment) and communications (network equipment). Collectively, this IT equipment processes, stores and transmits the information that allows our digital society to function.

Only about half the power used by data centers is for IT equipment. The rest is used by power conversions, backup power and cooling. As facility managers try to squeeze more computing power into less space, the energy consumption of a single rack of servers alone can exceed 20 kW, which does not account for the energy required to support those devices.

Significant energy use

The data center industry’s combined energy use is significant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that, from 2000 to 2006, the energy used by U.S. servers and data centers and the power and cooling infrastructure that supports them had doubled. It is not uncommon for peak data center power usage to range from tens of kilowatts for a small facility to tens of megawatts for the largest data centers.

In total, the EPA estimates the peak load on the power grid from data centers was approximately 7.3 gigawatts (GW) in 2007, or 1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. That is equivalent to the output of about 15 baseload power plants, for a total electricity cost of about $4.5 billion. This estimated level of electricity consumption is similar to the electricity consumed by approximately 5.8 million average U.S. households, which is about 5 percent of the total U.S. housing stock.

Looking forward, the EPA projects the number of installed enterprise (i.e., external) hard-disk-drive storage devices to nearly quadruple from 2004 to 2010. Data center floor space is expected to grow at 5 to 10 percent annually. It expects power demand to rise to 10–12 GW by 2011, or about 2.5 percent of total nationwide electricity use, at an annual cost of $7.4 billion. That is a 75 percent increase over 2006 electricity use.

Despite those staggering numbers, the United States and the entire world still are at the front end of a data-dependent social restructuring, in which societies will become increasingly dependent on data centers. The Internet, for instance, is only a little more than a decade old. The number and size of data centers continue to rapidly grow (for more information, see my article, “No End in Sight” on Large data centers are becoming increasingly common as smaller data centers consolidate. All of that translates into increased work opportunities for electrical contractors. But it also translates into concern about data centers’ increasing demand on the power grid, particularly in regions with large concentrations of them.

There are more areas of concern. As far back as 2005, more than 70 percent of operators surveyed named IT power and cooling as a primary issue in data center management, according to Ziff Davis Media Inc. In a recent survey of 100 data center operators by the Aperture Research Institute, almost 40 percent of respondents reported that they had run out of space, power or cooling capacity without having sufficient notice. According to AFCOM, an educator of data center managers, power failures and limits on power availability will interrupt data center operations at more than 90 percent of all companies over the next five years.

A shift in data center economics

The increased demand for electricity in data centers coupled with rising energy costs have ousted computer hardware from its spot as the primary cost component of a data center. According to the Uptime Institute, the three-year cost of the electricity for a high-density server will exceed the purchase price of the server itself sometime around 2009, so in many locales it soon will cost more to power and cool an IT server than it will to buy it for a large data center. This trend will continue to escalate as server densities increase and energy costs rise.

In other words, IT future expansion may be limited by the resulting power density increase within computer chips and the corresponding increased temperatures inside and around those chips. In the past, data center floor space had always dominated as a primary issue. Now, more data centers are running out of power for servers and cooling before they run out of floor space.

“This represents a significant shift in data center economics that threatens to overwhelm the advances in chip efficiency that have driven the growth of digital information during the past 30 years,” said a 2007 EPA report to the U.S. Congress.

The cost of electrical power usage has traditionally not been considered a key design criterion for data centers. It also was not intentionally managed as an expense. Rather, electrical costs were viewed as fixed and inevitable. But now that server density is leading to power and cooling limitations and spiraling electrical costs, there is a growing interest in energy efficiency as a potential solution to these problems. Accompanying this growth are the obvious concerns about pollution, carbon emissions and environmental sustainability.

The good news is a significant potential exists for energy-efficiency improvements in data centers. Existing technologies and design strategies have been shown to reduce the energy use of a typical server by 25 percent or more. Energy--efficiency strategies can be implemented in ways that do not compromise data center availability, performance or network security, which are essential for these strategies to be accepted by the market.

Such projections are welcome news to data center and corporate managers. The more efficient existing data centers can become, the less they will cost to operate, reducing their environmental impact while increasing the amount of time before they outgrow their existing facilities. But as new facilities are inevitably designed, built and consolidated those ECs able to demonstrate knowledge about and help deliver energy efficiency will be the ones to most likely secure those contracts.  EC

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at

About The Author

Russ Munyan is a freelance writer in Olathe, Kan., specializing in technical and business writing. He can be reached at





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