Monday, December 28, 2009

PG&E’s Bramfitt: data centers can be efficient and sustainable, but we must think beyond our current horizons

Before heading off for a little vacation, I posted the first part of a two-part interview with Pacific Gas & Electric’s Mark Bramfitt. Mark is best known in data center circles (you know, the kind of people that hang around this site and others like it) as the face of the Bay Area utility’s efforts to drive data center energy efficiency through innovative incentive programs. Now that I’m back, I’m posting part 2 of that discussion.

In the first part of the interview, Mark talked about what’s worked well and what hasn’t in PG&E's data center energy efficiency efforts, the impact of the recession on green IT projects, and how cloud computing is impacting the story.

After the interview appeared, Forrester analyst Doug Washburn wondered on Twitter if PG&E might kill the incentive programs Mark had been previously guiding. The thought is a natural one given how integral Mark has been to the program. From my interview, it didn’t sound so far-fetched: Mark himself thought cost pressures on PG&E might cause PG&E to “de-emphasize…some of the industry leadership activities undertaken by PG&E…we may not be able to afford to develop new programs and services if they won’t deliver savings.”

In the final part of the interview, posted below, Mark gets a little philosophical about energy efficiency metrics, highlights what’s really holding back data center efficiency work, and doles out a final bit of advice about creating "inherently efficient" IT infrastructure as he departs PG&E.

Jay Fry, Data Center Dialog: Mark, we’ve talked previously about the fact that a lot of the data center efficiency problem comes down to split incentives – often IT doesn’t pay or even see the power bill and the facilities guy doesn’t have control over the servers that are creating the problem. In addition, facilities is usually disconnected from the business reason for running those servers. How serious is this problem right now? What effective or creative ways have you seen for dealing with it?

Mark Bramfitt, PG&E: While I think we can all cite the split incentive issue as a problem, it’s not the only obstacle to success and it gets perhaps a bit too much air time. As much as I’d like to say that everyone’s focus on energy efficiency is making the split incentive obstacle moot, our experience is that there are only two ways that we get past that.

The first is when the IT management side simply has to get more done with less spend, leading them to think about virtualizing workloads. The second is when a facility runs out of capacity, throwing both IT and facility managers into the same boat, with energy efficiency measures often saving the day.

DCD: Many of the industry analyst groups (the 451 Group, Forrester, Gartner, etc.) have eco-efficient IT practices or focus areas now, a definite change from a few years ago. Is this a sign of progress and how can industry analyst groups be helpful in this process?

Mark Bramfitt: I can’t argue against the focus on energy efficient IT being anything but a good thing, but I’ve identified a big resource gap that hampers the ability of utilities to drive efficiency programs. We rely on engineering consultants who can accurately calculate the energy savings from implementing facility and IT improvements, and even here in the Bay Area, we have a hard time finding firms that have this competency – especially on the IT equipment side.

In my discussions with utilities across the U.S., this is probably the single biggest barrier to program adoption – they can’t find firms who can do the calculations, or resources to appropriately evaluate and review them.

So, I think there’s a real opportunity for IT service providers – companies that both sell solutions and services – to step into this market. I don’t know that analyst firms can do much about that.

DCD: I think it’s fair to say that measurement of the power and ecological impact of data centers has started and really does matter. In the (pre-CA) survey Cassatt did at the beginning of this year on the topic, we found that there were definitely areas of progress, but that old data center habits die hard. Plus, arguments among the various industry and governmental groups like the Green Grid and Energy Star over how and what to measure (PUE, DCiE, EUE) probably don’t help. How do you think people should approach measurement?

Mark Bramfitt: We’ve delivered a consistent message to both customers and to vendors of metering and monitoring systems that we think quantifying energy use can only have a positive impact on driving people to manage their data centers better. Metering and monitoring systems lead people to make simple changes, and can directly measure energy savings in support of utility incentive programs.

We also like that some systems are moving beyond just measurement into control of facility and IT equipment, and to the extent that they can do so, we can provide incentive funding to support implementation.

The philosophical distinctions being made around what metrics are best are understandable – the ones we have now place an emphasis on driving down the “overhead” energy use of cooling and power conditioning equipment, and have nothing to say about IT power load. I believe that the industry should focus on an IT equipment “utilization index” rather than holding out for the ideal efficiency metric, which is probably not conceivable given all of the different IT workloads extant in the marketplace.

DCD: One of the major initiatives you had was working with other utilities and create a coalition trying to push for similar incentives to those PG&E has been offering. I’ve heard Data Center Pulse is helping work on that, too. How would you characterize where we are with this process currently. What’s next?

Mark Bramfitt: The PG&E-sponsored and -led Utility IT Energy Efficiency Coalition [also mentioned in part 1 of Mark’s interview] now has almost 50 members, and I would say it has been a success in its core mission – to provide a forum for utilities to share program models and to discuss opportunities in this market space.

I think it’s time for the Coalition, in whatever form it takes in the future, to expand to offering the IT industry a view of what utilities are offering programs and how to engage with them, as well as a place for IT and other companies to list their competencies.

I’ll be frank, though, in saying that I don’t know whether PG&E will continue to lead this effort, or if we need to think about another way to accomplish this work. I’ve had conversations with a lot of players to see how to maintain the existing effort as well as to extend it into new areas.

DCD: Watching this all from PG&E is certainly different than the perspective of vendors, IT departments, or facilities folks. Any comments on seeing this process through the vantage point you’ve had?

Mark Bramfitt: Utilities primarily look at the data center market as a load growth challenge: how can we provide new energy delivery capacity to a segment that is projected to double every 5 years? There’s already immense national and global competition for locations where 20 or even 100 mW loads can be accommodated, and where customers want to build out facilities in months, not years.

PG&E’s answer to that is to actively work with customers to improve energy efficiency, extending our ability to accommodate new load growth without resorting to energy supply and delivery capacity that is expensive to build and not our best choice from an environmental sustainability perspective.

My larger view is that IT can deliver tremendous environmental benefits as it affects broad swaths of our activities – improving delivery systems, for example, and in my line of work enabling “smart grid” technologies that can improve utility operation and efficiency. But to get there, we need to have IT infrastructure that is inherently efficient and thereby sustainable, and we have a huge opportunity space to make that happen.

DCD: Do you have any advice you’d care to leave everyone with?

Advice? Every major achievement I’ve seen in this space has been due to people expanding their vision and horizons. It’s IT managers taking responsibility for energy costs even if they don’t roll up in their budget. It’s IT companies supporting efficiency measures that might in some ways be at cross-purposes with their primary business objectives. And it’s utilities that know that their mission can’t just be about delivering energy, they need to support customers and communities in new ways.

Thanks, Mark, for taking the time for the interview, and best of luck with the new venture.

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