Thursday, December 11, 2008

Marking green IT's progress: 'it's been slow going'

Two things got me thinking about the state of green IT today. First, with word "leaking" out about President-elect Obama's choice for energy secretary, I started wondering what sort of, um, change might be ahead in how the government will try to shape the energy footprint of data centers. From the energy-efficient data center work we've been involved with over the past 18 months, I'm hoping any actions build on the work that Andrew Fanara, the EnergyStar folks, the EPA, the DoE, and the like have been pushing.

Second, I saw mention of an IDC report yesterday at GreenComputing, predicting it will be a good year for green IT. That's despite the global economic worries. Energy efficiency work in IT will sneak in the data center's back door, according to Frank Gens of IDC, as "cost cutting" as companies look to adopt new technologies only if they have a speedy payback.

Both of those things led me to this question: what kind of progress (or lack thereof?) in data center energy efficiency have we seen in the past 12-18 months?

The Gartner Data Center Conference last week provided some good fodder for a report card of sorts. In fact, they had analyst Paul McGuckin, PG&E energy-efficiency guru Mark Bramfitt, and VMware data center expert Mark Thiele onstage for a panel that pretty much summed it all up in my mind. Some highlights:

"It's been slow going." Bramfitt kicked off his comments acknowledging that the incentive programs he's been running in Northern California for PG&E (the benchmark for many other programs nationwide) have only crept along, even though he has 25 things he can pay end users for. Most, said Bramfitt, are related to data center air conditioning, and not related to IT. Yet.

Despite the slow start, Bramfitt's asked his bosses for $50 million to hand out over the next three years, and was legitimately proud of a $1.4 million check he was presenting to a customer this week (he didn't name them during the panel, but I'm betting it was NetApp based on this story). VMware's Thiele noted that PG&E can actually be pretty flexible in dreaming up ways to encourage data center energy savings. He mentioned creating two completely new incentive programs in conjunction with PG&E in his current job and with previous employers.

People are realizing that energy efficiency is more about data center capacity than cost. Bramfitt noted that the real value of the incentive check that utilities can provide back to end users is not the money. It's the ability to "wave that check around saying, 'Look, PG&E paid me to do the right thing.'" More interestingly, though, "the people in my programs understand that energy efficiency has value for capacity planning and growth," Bramfitt said. "It's a capacity issue. It's not financial."

IT and facilities are only just starting to work together. Gartner's McGuckin said these two groups are still pretty separate. That matches data we published from our energy-efficiency survey from earlier this year. "I'm convinced," said McGuckin, "that we're not going to solve the energy problem in the data center without these two groups coming together."

Thiele talked about an idea that I've heard of being tried by a few companies: a "bridging-the-gap" person -- a data center energy efficiency manager -- that sits between IT and facilities. Thiele has someone doing exactly this working with him on VMware's R&D data centers. This is someone who looks at the data center as a system, an approach that, based on what our customers tell us, really makes a lot of sense. "So far it has been really, really well received," he said.

Mythbusting takes a long time. We started a page on our website of server power management myths back in late summer 2007. One of the first objections we encountered then was that it's bad to turn off servers. We still hit this objection over a year later. And I expect we will continue to for a while yet (old habits die hard!). At one point in the Gartner panel, McGuckin playfully asked Thiele about a power management comment he made: "You're stepping on another myth -- you're not suggesting shutting down servers, are you?"

"I am," Thiele said.

To help Thiele make his point, McGuckin then quoted Intel saying that servers can handle 3,000 power cycles, which translates to an 8-10 year life cycle for most machines if you turn them off once a day (Thiele noted that most get replaced in 3-5 years anyway). We're glad to help these guys do a bit of mythbusting, but I can tell you, it’s not a short-term project. "Things I considered to be gospel two years ago are being heard by people as new today," said Thiele. Having Gartner and other thought leaders continue to add their voice to this discussion can't hurt.

The best thing to do? Nibble at the problem. In the end, suggested Thiele, you need to work on energy efficiency in stages. Maybe that's a metaphor for the progress green IT is making overall. "Nibble at this," he said. "Don’t try to eat the whole whale at once. Pick a couple things you can get some traction on. Get some quick wins."

I know we've certainly adjusted our approach to help customers start small and even set their projects up as self-funding whenever possible. Quick, high-return "nibbles" are probably the best single way to make the case for energy-efficient IT -- and to ensure that next year shows a lot broader success throughout the industry than we've seen in the year that's gone by.

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