Servers are getting too hot to handle

Most Canadians find themselves getting sick of the cold by March, but infrastructure providers and Gartner Inc. are forecasting an extreme heat alert in the data centre that could bring down enterprise servers.At a recent conference in Las Vegas, Gartner Inc. predicted that 50 per cent of data centres will have insufficient power and cooling capacity by next year. The problem comes as companies move applications off bulky mainframes and onto leaner blade servers. These machines offer high density, but they also come with a trade-off in terms of the power and heat they generate.

“Packing a (server) rack at some point will become limited just by the sheer physics of the heat dynamic problem,” Gartner analyst Michael Bell said. “I can envision 40, 50 kilowatt racks, and there’s technology that can manage that, but once you get to that level, you can hit the wall.”

Server vendors are responding with a mixture of old and new techniques to combat the cooling challenge. HP, for example, recently announced its Dynamic Smart Cooling System, which is based on a series of sensors that attach to server racks and can adjust air conditioning levels based on real-time data. The company is also offering a set of professional services to go along with the service.

“The alternative to doing something like this is building a brand new data centre. This will pay for itself in a year,” said Jeff Otchis, HP’s manager of infrastructure marketing. He said the sensors collect data such as server status and location, which can help isolate the spots that need cooling the most.

“In an environment like a house, there are areas that are hotter and some that are cooler depending on how far away they are from the air conditioners and whatever else is going on,” he said. “Over time, you can aggregate server information – the inlet and outlet info – so you see a hot spot and see which apps are running in that area.”

Otchis said the benefit of automating temperature management based on the air units is the ability to tweak and optimize output cooling based on the requirements of the compute workload. HP is going to be deploying its own Dynamic Smart Cooling system internally at its data centre in Houston, which uses between 15 and 20 computer room air conditioners, he said.

EMC is also focused on measurement, but through a “Power Calculator” software tool that allows customers of its Symmetrix, DMX-3, Clariion, UltraScale and Celerra products to map out their energy use based on a variety of configurations. Iain Anderson, client solution director at EMC Canada, said the tool can be used to forecast power consumption and make the necessary adjustments ahead of time.

“As a design goal, when you’re thinking about data or infrastructure migrations, driving up that utilization of the infrastructure on the floor is the real objective,” he said. “In a lot of cases you see servers running at 30 to 40, maybe 50 per cent utilization. All these disk drives are spinning more power for drives that aren’t actually doing any useful work.”

Water-cooling talk
IBM has spent the last two years taking a more old-fashioned approach with its Cool Blue product line. Its Rear Door Heat eXchanger uses small pipes attached to a server rack through which distilled or deionized water dissipates heat. Although IBM’s System Z mainframe has been using water cooling for decades, it’s still a relatively new concept for the x86 market, said Cool Blue brand manager Kwasi Asare.

“Some customers don’t have the same level of confidence in it, but there’s nothing more energy-efficient they can do,” he said, adding that water is 300 per cent more energy efficient than air. “Think about it: on a hot summer day you’d much more want to get into a pool than sit under a fan.”

Bell agreed, noting that other products, such as ISR Inc.’s Spraycool, shoot water right on the processors and allow heat transfer through evaporation. Cooligy and other vendors are taking a similar tack.

Just split up the workload
VMware has been using the power concerns in data centres as a business case for its virtualization technology, which can effectively run several instances of an application or OS on a single machine. According to Bogomil Balkansky, the company’s director of product marketing, for every application workload that customers run in a virtual machine, they can save about $560 a year from power and cooling.“By virtue of consolidating servers in the data centre from five to one or from 10 to one, that translates immediately into a five-fold to 10-fold decrease in power consumption,” he said.

Dell has been among the vendors working with VMware to push viritualization while retooling its infrastructure products. Dell’s ninth generation PowerEdge, for example, consumes 25 per cent less power, according to its Canadian vice-president Debra Jenson, and that’s before any virtualization at all.

“If you were to have a four-socket server with dual-core in each socket, you can double the capacity and partition into eight potential servers,” she said. “The box isn’t generating any more heat because you’re splitting the cores.”

No matter what enterprises choose, Asare said, they still need to address the fundamental issue of data centre design.

“You have to figure out the proper layouts and workloads in there to get the most performance per watt,” he said. “The energy companies are approaching customers and telling them they don’t have more energy to give you, so you have to more intelligently allocate it.”

Vendors and Gartner’s Bell said power consumption problems are going to force IT departments to involve operations or facilities staff in the planning of new server installations. If not, they might be told they can’t expand their data centre at all.

“It really will raise some definite organizational conflicts, because that energy bill sits in the facilities budget, and they go through the roof,” Bell said.

Many vendors are also offering professional services to help IT and facilities departments to assist with power consumption planning in the data centre. EMC, HP, IBM and Dell are all promoting their expertise in energy efficiency.

“What I’m hearing more from EMC project managers is sometimes projects are starting to get delayed, and it’s not due to resourcing uses, it’s the facility not being able to take on the power or cooling requirements,” Anderson said.

Asare said more careful planning can pay off. “There are three buckets to pour money into – power, cooling or IT,” he said. “I think you’d much rather pour it into IT, because the other two buckets don’t give you any productivity.”

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