May the Power Be With You

Companies such as Power Assure are helping data center operators uncover hidden capacity by accurately measuring energy consumption and finding ways to run systems more efficiently.

David Hill

April 18, 2013

6 Min Read
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When we think of physical IT infrastructure, we usually focus on servers, storage and networks. But without electricity for running and cooling computing equipment, IT is dead in the water. Yet not enough attention over time has been paid to problems such as provisioning and efficiency that plague what might be called the "shadow" physical IT infrastructure.

That is changing. Data center infrastructure management (DCIM) extends traditional system and network management thinking to the monitoring and management of all critical related data center resources in a comprehensive and integrated manner. DCIM is a relatively new term, but it provides a way of thinking and a rallying cry that is driving innovation. Large players, such as BMC, CA, HP and IBM, are among those that are taking leadership roles in DCIM, but a large number of companies, including startups, are attacking aspects of the problem.

To keep things simple and to illustrate DCIM from a data center energy perspective, our focus here is on a young company, Power Assure.

Unlocking Hidden Capacity

Here is a conundrum: Why are some data centers apparently running out of power despite the fact that server racks or rooms are half-full? The reason is that data centers think that they are running out of power and, therefore, are afraid to add equipment. In fact, they have a lot of power from the grid that is still available for them to use. The anticipated power requirements are collected from equipment nameplates and vendor-supplied information. As this information tends to be conservative, the power requirements are overstated (which means that you seem to be using more power than you use by a wide margin). The difference between what nominally you are using and what you could use is hidden capacity.

Power Assure uses its EM/4 software platform to address the issue of hidden capacity. The first step is monitoring true energy consumption. Power Assure uses a metric called PAR4 that has been IT energy-efficiency-tested by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Equipment power consumption is measured at four levels: off, idle, loaded and peak. A PAR4 value is the transactions per second per watt at 100% load. The accumulated numbers enable accuracy in planning the maximum power allocation. That is useful in being able to take advantage of hidden capacity.

Note that this approach can also be used to compare efficiency across multiple generations of IT equipment--past, present and future (theoretical). For example, how much power could be saved by moving to a new generation of servers? Or, alternately, how many additional servers could be added without going over planned maximum power consumption?

Power Assure also employs other metrics, such as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), which calculates facility efficiency as the ratio of total power consumed throughout the data center and the power consumed by the IT equipment. Power Assure states that, typically, 50% of the power in a data center is consumed by equipment (servers, storage and networking), 40% by the cooling system (a chilling fact!) and 10% by the inherent inefficiencies in the power distribution itself. So all components have to be examined to ensure a proper balance.

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Note that one key to the effectiveness of this process is the collection of data from a variety of sources. Power Assure software is data-driven software intelligence that uses data that can be captured from the equipment itself. Quite frankly, the old saying that you can't manage what you can't measure is changing IT infrastructure management processes from being reactive (seat-of-the-pants intuition) to proactive (data-driven decision making) at the same time that software (from server virtualization to storage management and on and on) is fundamentally altering how IT interacts with hardware resources. This is a very positive trend, and Power Assure is very much in line with that trend.

But monitoring is only part of the process. A second step is analysis. Prioritizing the list of possible improvements and taking the necessary corrective action (sometimes with the use of automation) seals the deal.

Next Page: Data Center EfficienciesUnlocking hidden capacity is nice, but data center owners may have a simpler goal: Can I save money on power and cooling? The answer is yes. Power Assure states that server utilization is still low overall, despite the continuing adoption of consolidating systems and workloads with server virtualization. Low server utilization translates directly into wasted power. The ability to handle peak load management is another area of concern.

The Power Assure technology that is used for determining hidden capacity can also be refocused to look at the proper energy use of IT hardware infrastructure assets. Techniques such as load balancing and server throttling can be evaluated. For example, monitoring and analysis of workloads over time can help direct which servers need to be always on (at a high energy consumption rate) versus which ones can be always available (at a significant energy savings, but at a latency penalty should they be needed).

Power Assure provides a variety of monitoring tools, such as dashboards (that display server status, application load, and power consumption), analysis (what can be done to improve efficiencies based upon actions that can be taken, such as turning off backup servers) and automation (threshold-based alerts and policy-driven actions, such as patch management).

For larger organizations that have two or more data centers that are geographically distributed enough so that they do not share the same power grid, Power Assure may also help clients take advantage of differences in real-time electricity pricing. For example, if a heat wave temporarily raises the price of electricity at one site and if workloads can easily be moved to another site where electricity prices are lower (a big "if," however), then an enterprise may be able to save on electrical costs.

How does Power Assure achieve this? By acting as a software as a service (SaaS) vendor. At its network control center (NOC), the company can capture an enterprise's usage information, as well as utilities' real-time pricing information, and determine/recommend what actions an IT organization should take. This approach could generate significant savings in electrical usage.

Mesabi Musings

When we talk about the movement to the private cloud or other forms of data center transformation, we tend to think of what captures our attention on a daily basis--software, such as applications or server virtualization, or hardware, such as servers, storage and network solutions. Even if you are not an IT operations person who deals directly with your company's facilities organization, you need to be aware of the utility fundamentals that form the backbone of your data center--most notably, the electricity required for powering and cooling.

But measuring, monitoring and managing data center utilities has been mostly a seat-of-the-pants process hobbled by imperfect information. Power Assure is one company that is working to change that to, if not a science, then an engineered approach that enables data-driven decision making. Finding hidden IT capacity means that you have room to grow, can plan better and achieve better results. What may be even more attractive is that with the assistance of Power Assure, you now have the means to enable plans that also help cut existing utility costs. Saving money, which is what efficiency is all about, means that those resources can be put to more productive use.

May the power be with you!

Power Assure is not a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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