Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Measurement matters: survey finds improvements in data center energy efficiency, but...

When we ran our 2008 Cassatt Data Center Energy Efficiency survey, the topic was really at the forefront of the industry conversation. Green IT was everywhere you looked. It was a perfect time to ask questions (and get some intriguing answers) about how data center managers were approaching their power issues.

Fast-forward a year to 2009.

As we planned out the questions for our 2nd annual Data Center Survey, the hard part was figuring out what not to ask. We expanded our survey questions to ask about cloud computing, virtualization management, data center efficiency projects, and even how people are finding and dealing with orphan servers -- changes that we felt matched the important data center trends to keep tabs on.

Even if it is unable to keep up with the kind of buzz being generated by things like the cloud computing hype train, the data center energy efficiency issue remains critical. Last year's survey provided us with a lot of insights into what people were doing and thinking of doing around green IT -- and even how they felt about "radical ideas" like turning off servers they weren't using (59% said they could justify it, by the way).

So, you'll be happy to hear, that we kept the energy efficiency questions in this year's survey. The trend data we now have by asking those same questions a second year in a row was worth the extra effort. (And, in the end, Cassatt's 2009 survey was only 4 questions longer than the 2008 one. We even had almost 100 more respondents this year.)

Here are a few insights I see from comparing the data center energy efficiency results from Cassatt's 2009 survey with those from 2008:

More awareness of the data center energy efficiency problem

All of the talk about energy efficiency has had some effect. More of our respondents have a corporate "green" initiative this year (46.9% in 2009, 40.4% last year). More have a handle on how energy-efficient their data centers are than they did last year: only 4% said they "didn't know" how they were doing on energy efficiency this year. Last year's figure was almost quadruple that (15.7%). I think it's safe to say that some people have been doing their homework.

Data center managers think their data centers are more efficient this year

Even better, respondents think their data centers are more efficient now. 30.8% believed their data centers to be "very efficient" or "better than average" in '09. That number was only 19.1% 12 months ago. Only 13.6% see themselves as "worse than average" or "poor" this year, down from 21.9% in 2008. There's still an amusing reporting bias that I've mentioned before in which way too many people believe they are average or above, but it looks like people believe they are getting better at data center energy efficiency. Is this optimism warranted yet? It might be; read on.

More good news: measurement is improving

For those of you who have been beating the drum to measure, measure, measure, our survey has some good news. They are. More people are measuring power consumption of their data center server environments this year than did last year, and they are measuring it with more granularity. Specifically, 19.7% said they don't measure power consumption, a drop from the 28.3% who said that last year. More people are measuring power consumption at more detailed levels this year: more by individual server, more by power distribution units (PDU), and more by server racks -- and fewer are just measuring at the server room level. That's all steady movement in the right direction.

But measurement uncovers a bigger problem

There's one potentially painful side effect of the increased measurement that's been reported in our survey, though: the problem of data center power capacity has gotten worse.

The data center power capacity problem is the topic that we here at Cassatt have found to be the main driver in kick-starting any sort of energy efficiency project. I've heard similar dire stats from Gartner and others, but here's what we found: 44.7% have a data center using 75% or more of its power capacity. That's way up from 28.6% last year. The percentage of those within >90% of power capacity at their most constrained data center more than doubled since last year (15.9% v 7.1%). There is an urgent need for these organizations to do one of two things: find a way to extend the life of their existing data centers, or figure out how, in this economy, to build another data center. It's not a comfortable spot to be in, and unfortunately it seems that more and more data center managers are finding that out. I'm also betting that some of the public cloud vendors are getting calls from these same organizations, looking for a Plan B. Or C.

And, it is exactly these power, space, and/or cooling constraints, as you would expect, that were once again the top reason for pursuing a data center energy efficiency project (noted by 34.6% of respondents this year). Pursuing this kind of project because of "environmental responsibility," however, dropped, falling from 22.1% to 14.0%. Maybe folks are tiring of the "green" message that they've been hit over the head with for the past 18 months. Or, maybe reality has stepped in: the "current economic conditions" was picked by 5.3% as the reason for pursuing energy efficiency projects for their data centers this year, too (a new choice in the 2009 survey). Green is nice, but IT has to react when the business (and its budget) is threatened.

So what green IT projects are they working on?

Almost exactly the same proportion as last year (63%) said that they are planning -- or are actually working on -- a data center energy efficiency project. The difference is that a few more of them are actually in progress this year (42.6%, up from 39.0% in 2008), rather than just having grandiose plans for IT "greenness" sitting on a shelf somewhere to keep their executives happy.

So what energy-efficiency strategies are people actually implementing? This year's list is nearly the same as last year's mix; everything is within a few percentage points of what we reported about projects being pursued last year: server consolidation/virtualization was noted by 73.3%, up from its already impressive numbers last year (69.2%). Some of the other projects, in order of popularity, are: storage consolidation/virtualization, more power-efficient servers, consolidate data centers, improve cooling, and server power management software.

We allowed respondents to tell us if they are working on multiple data center energy efficiency projects if that was the case. And it was. People, on average, had exactly the same number of projects this year as in '08: 3.4 per respondent. That's proof that people continue to confront this complex problem in multiple ways.

As for the future, virtualization continues to lead, but 34.0% were also considering purchasing "more power-efficient servers." That's an interesting answer, given the capital spending freezes on in many IT organizations. Also, one of the things Cassatt has always advocated remained on the list, too: over 20% of the respondents are considering server power management software of some sort.

Good news/bad news: progress, but a complex problem

As positive as a lot of the data above sounds, there's still a pretty big uphill climb that remains. The path we're on won't let data centers (nor the power grid) sustainably support the business computing that industry is expected to generate even within the next few years. The economy might slow that demand some this year, but probably not for long (at least, I hope that's the case, from a personal and macroeconomic point of view). I noted the slow progress on green IT back in a December post, and I'll delve into a couple more examples of it in my next post.

In the meantime, kudos to the IT ops and data center professionals who are taking on the data center power problem head-on. And, now that they've gotten good at this measurement thing, maybe it's smart to consider some more, easy steps for data center folks to work on next. After all, I bet they're looking for another project to tackle. In their spare time. (I can always dream, right?)

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