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Scott M. Fulton, III
Scott M. Fulton, III
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Cutting Datacenter Power Costs

Power management services and tools can cut consumption by swapping workloads between servers, but analysts say IT efficiency tools face challenges in the enterprise.

When the concept of load balancing was first presented to datacenters, it was with the notion of consolidating processor use and increasing availability. When cloud dynamics changed the schematics of datacenters, it became clear to some that load balancing achieves an even higher goal: power reduction.

With its latest datacenter monitoring service, EM/5, Power Assure’s goal is not so much to use load balancing to maximize or concentrate utilization as it is to simply turn stuff off when it’s not being used. The sad fact of datacenter power strategies today is that too many servers are just sitting there, waiting for something to do, spinning their wheels, and consuming kilowatt-hours in the process. Power Assure calls what it does to address this problem "software-defined power."

In a live demonstration given by Power Assure to Network Computing, a test enterprise network comprising three datacenters, backed up by Amazon AWS, was suddenly hit with a heavy workload. Web servers in datacenters in Sacramento and Santa Clara, Calif., and Ashburn, Va., were ramped up from under 10,000 transactions per second to well over 100,000. At the beginning of the test, the entire workload was handled by five servers in the Sacramento rack. As the EM/5 dashboard indicated, Sacramento was chosen because it was supplied with the least expensive electricity at that moment.

When the workload started to ramp up, EM/5 indicated the first signs of stress. To remediate that stress without affecting the transaction flow, EM/5 instigated a live migration of the entire workload to the Ashburn rack. There, the power was slightly more expensive, but the servers could alleviate the bottlenecks.

Pete Malcolm, president and CEO of Power Assure, said EM/5 will enable datacenter managers to make rapid analyses of how much savings they could reap immediately by moving workloads, as well as how much more savings they could reap down the road by changing out existing servers for newer models.

With this level of power consumption analysis on hand, Malcolm told us, admins can experiment with the effects of swapping workloads among server models, server racks, and server centers. Next, a completely new opportunity may arise: purchasing electricity in bulk, in advance, on the wholesale market. 

The strategy here is for managers to learn their applications’ power consumption patterns and, instead of powering up enough servers redundantly to account for any overage, power down those servers they’re less likely to need. Enterprises could spend from 20% to 40% less per kilowatt-hour this way, plus they would be consuming less kWh anyway.

“More than that, we can actually adjust your consumption by moving workloads around. So if we know you’ve purchased a certain amount of power on the day-ahead market and you’re getting close to that limit, we can move loads somewhere else so you don’t go over it," Malcolm said.

Matt Stansberry, director of content for the Uptime Institute research firm, told us there are two main problems holding back IT efficiency tools such as EM/5.

“The first is risk aversion: In a complex, heterogeneous IT environment, moving and restarting IT services can have an impact on application availability," he said. "The second, and more important issue, is that IT departments are not incentivized to undertake the efforts to improve efficiency.”

As Stansberry explained, the part of an organization that usually pays the power bill -- as much as four-fifths of the time -- is the facilities manager or corporate real estate manager. Since IT isn’t rewarded for how much the company saves on its electric bill, power-saving tools and services, which have existed in some form for several years now, don’t find their toehold.

“The majority of the datacenter efficiency discussion over the past seven years has been around PUE [power usage effectiveness],” Stansberry said. “But datacenter facilities teams and designers have done their jobs, and the infrastructure is dramatically improved. In fact, we’re at the point of diminishing returns on this issue. IT practitioners need to take the next steps and be incentivized to do it.”

Jennifer Koppy, IDC’s research manager for datacenter trends and strategies, who profiled Power Assure for IDC last year, said the power saving problem will only get worse, as datacenters keep adding new equipment.

“The pressure on datacenters will become much more acute in the next couple of years,” she said.  “Management of these resources continues to be a problem, and although many management tools are on the market, they require a very thoughtful, committed approach that the entire organization is in on. So it takes a process change, and it takes a tool that people can trust to provide a single version of the truth.”

Scott M. Fulton, III, has been an editor and producer of online news and educational materials and author of instructional books and multimedia since 1984. His experience in investigating, enabling, and reporting on productivity, connectivity, and security for ... View Full Bio

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Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
5/2/2014 | 9:59:10 AM
Re: Building the Smart Grid, one step at a time
I've heard that these systems work best when they are integrated with an API to the utility, so that they get a real-time feed of changing rates during the day and can respond by the minute. I don't know how often a business wants to be changing its actual utility provider, but it could be ramping up backup, for example, when the price of electricity drops.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2014 | 2:39:29 PM
Re: Building the Smart Grid, one step at a time
Well, this is something that can be done without the cooperation of the electrical utility companies. Simply by switching operations dynamically to the lowest cost provider of electricity, the datacenters can save money. The technical details of how they do so will become known and copied, contributing to the base of knowledge that will become the growing basis of the evolving smart grid. But I do think that business people involced in for-profit activities do need to be incentivized for what they do do
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
5/1/2014 | 2:31:16 PM
Re: Building the Smart Grid, one step at a time
Gary_EL, let's bring on that smart grid! I am honestly kind of sick of hearing about how people need to be "incentivized" to do something as decent and reasonable as conserving energy (no offense to Matt Stansberry in the article, who is actually a friend of mine).

We've had these energy management technologies for a while, but they don't seem to catch on. I think the problem may be that the utility companies are not cooperating -- and why would they? The promise of these tools really lies in integrating them with the meters and monitoring systems of the utilities so that customers can use more power at periods of lowest consumption. That's not in the interest of the electric companiy, but it is of all its customers.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2014 | 2:05:02 PM
Building the Smart Grid, one step at a time
And datacenters managers are just the people to do it, given the tools they have at their disposal and the fluid nature of the service that they provide. And, as the article states, for this process to pushed forward as quickly as possible, IT must be credited for savings in total costs for electricity as they are achieved.
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