How green was my data centre?

With inflated oil prices and industrial air pollution contributing to disease and even death, some organizations are increasingly starting to explore alternative methods of obtaining power — even if they have to pay a premium.

One of the largest power hungry culprits in any enterprise of substantial size is the data centre. In recent years, processor companies have shifted their focus from the feeds and speeds to performance per watt approach when marketing their products. Despite a seemingly more enlightened business community and marketing shift from chipmakers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, the fact remains that green power, or that which comes from renewable sources like wind or solar energy is expensive.

While coal fired plants, traditional hydro, oil and gas and nuclear energy make up the majority of energy sources today, green electricity retailers like Bullfrog Power, which launched in Ontario last week, are looking to provide consumers a viable alternative. But in order to drive adoption, green power first needs to be accessible and, more importantly, affordable.

“There’s a growing awareness that not all power is good power,” said Bullfrog executive chairperson Greg Keesling. “A larger number of organizations are starting to want to be socially responsible in their consumption and purchasing and are starting to look at their impact.”

By signing on with Bullfrog, Ontario residents can choose to direct their electricity dollars from their current electricity provider, like Toronto Hydro, for example. Bullfrog has already signed up RBC Financial Group to provide power to seven of its Toronto branches. Bullfrog also powers 100 per cent of Upper Canada Forest Products, including its North American data centre, using clean, renewable power from generators that produce no carbon dioxide or smog-inducing emissions.

The challenge, however, remains in getting businesses to change the way in which they view the role of sustainable business practices within their organization. Environmental pollution, for example, is not included in the cost of doing business, said Greg Brown, renewable energy coordinator at Smithers, B.C.-based environmental group OneSky Network.

“Energy is one of the biggest ecological footprints that we have,” said Brown. “It’s easier now because of international climate change agreements like Kyoto. There’s a way to begin to quantify this so-called externality of doing business.”

Outside of the electricity market, processor vendors like Intel and AMD have switched their marketing strategy over the last several years to appeal to a more energy-conscious consumer. While developing strategies around performance is nothing new for either company, both report an increased interest from customers for energy saving products at the mobile, desktop and server levels.

“We see an increased interest from IT customers in other platform segments looking at the data centre and also looking at desktop clients for slightly different reasons,” said Stephen Smith, Intel Corp. vice-president and member of the digital enterprise group, adding data centre customers are looking at how much computing capability they can deploy in a data centre given the amount of power delivered to rack space and cooling.

“In the desktop it’s getting into smaller and sleeker form factors and it’s also about managing power consumption.”

Announced earlier this year at its annual Developers Forum, Intel is create products for mobile, desktop and server platforms based on next generation micro architecture or 64 nanometre technology that the company says will give users better performance per watt than the current 90 nm technology that exists in chipsets like Xeon and Centrino today.

AMD, on the other hand, said one of the biggest issues related to performance per watt and processors is leakage.

“Leakage, meaning that power going in is used efficiently and not just dispelled as heat,” said Brent Kirby, product marketing manager for Opteron. AMD’s Opteron line, which is developed for server platforms, stems from one-way to eight-way capable products with an average of 95 watts for its standard watt processor.

AMD recently launched optimized power management for its server line, which is, like the name suggests, operating system directed power management. For mobile it’s called power now and for desktop it’s called cool and quiet. When servers are sitting at idle, Kirby says it can save as much as 75 per cent of CPU power.

“The driver works with the OS, identifies the soft workload, looks at utilization and adjusts processors power to meet the needs of that workload,” explained Kirby.

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