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By 8 April 2014 | Categories: Managed Services

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South African data centres are starting to embrace green technologies in an effort to boost operational efficiencies. Lance Harris looks into the new trends.

Green technology is finally on the agenda for South African service providers and enterprises that run significant data centre infrastructures. Rather than legislation or pressure from environmental lobbyists, it is the rapidly rising cost of electricity that is forcing local businesses to look for ways to boost energy efficiency and reduce carbon footprints in their data centres.

With the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) granting Eskom annual price hikes well above the rate of inflation for the past few years, power costs in South Africa have grown into as heavy an operational expense for data centres here as they are in the rest of the world. In response, local organisations are looking at every option to reduce power usage - from free cooling and energy efficient servers to virtualisation and capacity management. This is a trend that should benefit the environment as well as take a little pressure off South Africa’s strained power grid. “The green movement forces data centres to do things more efficiently, and therefore helps them to save money,” says Master Power’s sales and marketing manager, Neill Schreiber.

Although some South African companies have been talking about measuring the carbon footprints in their IT environments, there hasn’t been a massive movement towards green data centres in the absence of strong environmental laws with penalties for non-compliance, says Miles

Bowker, solution strategist, CA Southern Africa. And given that electricity was historically cheap in South Africa compared to the rest of the world, local organisations have lagged behind world trends in energy efficiency. Energy efficiency has emerged as the biggest potential area for operational cost savings for South African data centres as a result, says Bowker.

Lex van Wyk, MD at Teraco, one of South Africa’s largest data centre providers, agrees that power efficiency is one of the major challenges local data centre operators face. Power is Teraco’s most significant running cost outside of human resources, yet it is difficult to pass rising electricity costs on to customers.

Keeping it cool

Though the so-called ‘hyper-scale’ computing companies - Apple, Facebook and Google, for example – are powering their data centres with wind energy, such technologies are likely too impractical for most South African data centres.

Moving its data centres off Eskom’s grid would be prohibitively expensive for an operation like Teraco because of the costs and inefficiencies of generating power using renewable sources such as wind or solar, says Van Wyk.  For that reason, Teraco is focusing on the energy efficiency of the IT equipment on its racks as well as the efficiency of its cooling (air conditioning might account for 50% of the power bill in a large data centre).

In recent years, there is been a great deal of innovation in how data centres are cooled using traditional and alternative cooling technologies. Data centre designs are increasingly incorporating technologies such as heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) units, computer room air-conditioning units, free cooling and Kyoto cooling.

Free cooling is about using outside air to cool datacentre facilities rather than running mechanical refrigeration or air-conditioning units. Given that many vendors have come to market with servers that can run at hotter temperatures, free cooling may be a viable option for the winter months, especially in cooler areas. Kyoto cooling is similar to free cooling and uses Kyoto Cooling Cells, mechanical devices made of conductive aluminium and some six metres in diameter. A turning wheel transfers cooler air from outside into the data centre while heat is extracted through an exhaust system. 

Optimising the data centre layout - from cabling and false floors through to the cooling and power requirements and even the racks and servers – can also improve energy efficiency. Analysis with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) algorithms, for example, can help organisations to optimise the data center airflow, improve the cooling efficiency, and reduce the operating costs reduced, says Schreiber.

Optimise what you’ve got

In recent years, there has been a great deal of innovation around making hardware – especially servers – more energy efficient. Technologies such as low voltage processors, smarter technologies that control fan speeds according to a server’s thermal requirements, and high efficiency power supply units are all playing a role. Techniques such as distribution of DC power directly to servers and other equipment are increasing efficiencies by removing step-down conversions and the associated wastage. With server equipment that needs less cooling because it’s able to operate at higher temperatures, is finding its way into many of the world’s data centres. In future, hyper-efficient micro servers might be widely used for certain applications.

CA’s Bowker says that another way organisations can create greener, more efficient data centres is by using tools that allow them to better manage and optimise their systems. For example, they could virtualise their hardware infrastructures so that they make better use of storage space and server processing power.

Many South African data centres have yet to consolidate and virtualise their infrastructures, with the result that they use only 10% or 20% of each server’s capacity, he adds. That means they’re running more servers and hence consuming more power than they need to. Raising hardware utilisation rates through virtualisation, therefore, is an effective way of reducing power demands, in addition to the many benefits it offers in terms of IT management, scalability and flexibility.

Data centre infrastructure management (DCIM) tools are emerging as a significant area of green computing. DCIM combines functions such as data centre design, asset discovery, systems management, capacity planning and energy management into a view of the data centre that stretches from the server racks to the cables under the floor.

DCIM tools, which are still relatively new to the market, offer IT managers insight into the power and cooling needs of the infrastructure as well as its capacity so that they can plan better. For example, they can allow IT managers to track unused or underused assets that are using electricity but delivering no business value.  This information can be used to inform decisions to switch machines off, consolidate infrastructure or optimise equipment layouts.

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