Is your organization ready for cap and trade? While it's all well and good to build as “green” as possible, data centre operators need to ensure their operations are economically viable as well. Industry observers say data centre owners – and their customers – have to pay attention to where the data centre’s power comes from if they really want to walk the line between environmental and financial responsibility. “Most of the time when you’re seeing a green story, it’s going be talking about efficiency,” says Brian Fry, co-founder and vice-president of sales and marketing at RackForce Networks Inc in Kelowna, B.C. “But look out the back, follow the power lines to the power source, and you’d be surprised.” The power source is the lynchpin, he says. It’s great news if your servers run efficiently, and your heating and cooling systems are state of the art – but if they’re powered by, say, a coal-fired generating station, how green is that? It isn’t necessarily better for the environment – and it could put a big dent in the corporate pocketbook as well. Bill St. Arnaud is a member of Telemanagement’s advisory board and the chief research officer of CANARIE Inc, Canada’s advanced research network headquartered in Ottawa. He sees a shift towards power-source scrutiny, both in terms of environmental and economic prudence. The major concern: emerging cap and trade energy polices. “Many companies are not aware of the consequences,” says Arnaud. It’s something the US government is seriously considering. Canadian administrators will probably follow suit, St. Arnaud figures. Cap and trade would force companies to operate below a certain environmental threshold – the amount of carbon dioxide their operations emit would have to be lower than a particular level. Companies producing more than the permitted cap would have to purchase credits from businesses producing less than the maximum carbon dioxide amount. That’s the “trade” part of the equation. What does it all mean for data centre operators? Unless they look forward to shelling out big bucks for credits, they’ll need to make sure their power comes from relatively low-carbon sources, such as renewable hydro-electric systems and wind farms. And that’s just stage one. Stage two: higher green energy prices. As companies scramble to secure contracts with hydro companies and solar power providers, you can bet prices for these environmentally friendly services will skyrocket. What’s a data centre operator to do? “Get off the grid ASAP,” St. Arnaud says. “It’s the only way you can really be certain of your cost of power over the next 20 years.” This is why some data centre operators are looking at old hydro electric stations and generators as strategic investments. If they can produce the power themselves, they’ll avoid paying arms and legs to other providers. And if they happen to produce surplus power, it could be returned to the grid for a rebate or sold to other, not-so-forward-thinking businesses. “The big companies understand this in spades,” St. Arnaud says. Smaller firms step up But the big companies aren’t the only ones concerned about dollars and environmental sense. RackForce, for instance, is all about the green. In July the 27-person company plans to open its first eco-friendly GigaCenter data centre. Powered by the nearby Columbia River via electricity provider Fortis, this Kelowna BC-located facility will sport “cold aisles” that concentrate the cooling effect of chillers and air conditioners for maximum efficiency. The warmer air that comes out the other side of the centre will be pumped on to help heat local condominium and office buildings. AC economizers will ensure cold air is drawn from outside if the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius. Proximity to the main power source – the river generators – helps reduce power-line loss as the electricity travels from the service provider to the data centre. RackForce is building incrementally, starting with 30,000 square feet with the ability to scale up to 150,000 square feet. This also aids efficiency, because less space spells less heating and air-conditioning required. Targeting the US as well as Canadian and European customers, RackForce could be well positioned to capitalize on a cap-and-trade system. The firm not only wants to host end-user organizations’ computer resources, but it also wants to support other data centres looking to augment their own platforms. Data centre expertise could be Canada’s way out of its hewers-of-wood, drawers-of-water economy. “We need to look at renewable power as valuable as a raw log,” Fry says, arguing that Canada could turn this into something more than a basic resource. “We could be the major provider of data centre and IT services.” Fry says the trick is to concentrate Canada’s data centres in places that have access to green energy – hydro, for instance, is plentiful along the Columbia River in BC, and in Manitoba and Quebec. But does that mean places like Nova Scotia, which draws plenty of power from coal, would be left out of the loop? Not necessarily. St. Arnaud mentions Bastionhost Ltd, which is creating data centres in Nova Scotia using wind and tidal energy to power the facilities. Businesses have choices. “If companies don’t take precautions in Nova Scotia, they will be very dirty,” St. Arnaud says. And with cap and trade coming, “you’d price yourself right out of the market.” Price is a perpetual sticking point. But technology has an answer: virtualization. You might be hard pressed to find a data centre in North America not using or planning to use it. Virtualization transforms servers into services and essentially chops the hardware requirement, reducing the power need. But it isn’t without its hazards. If data centre operators aren’t careful, they could find that this energy-saving system ends up costing them in other ways. “The pitfalls are the same as they’d be for any sizable new project,” says Grant Aitken, Toronto-based area VP for VMware Inc, a software company specializing in virtualization. “If you don’t plan well, don’t train and don’t predict the change-management issues, those are the things that are going to bite you.” VMware teams up with other companies to help keep those bites at bay. “We have partners that will go in and do a study,” Aitken says. “Whether they’re looking at environmental issues – that’s usually an element of it, but it’s not the only piece.” Capital cost avoidance plays a large part as well. “It may be the poor man’s way, but we actually have an ROI tool on our website that any customer can use. If they have extremely detailed data, they can modify the default details,” such as the power rates, which are set for a US average, not a Canadian average. But it’s relatively time consuming. “Somebody has to go and get those data points.” The Jevons Effect Fry from RackForce points to the Jevons Effect as one consideration: the more efficient the technology, the more it’s used. “The dilemma with virtualization is it’s so easy to create servers, you end up with server sprawl.” Planning and management are important. And it’s crucial to consider the physical space for the hardware as well, even if it is somewhat smaller than would have been required in a non-virtualized system. “Virtualization is an awesome idea but you need the data centre underneath to support it,” Fry says. Most industry observers agree that virtualization is a good first step towards a green data centre – but it’s only one item on the environmental to-do list. If companies don’t pay attention to other energy savers, and if they ignore where, exactly, their power comes from, “you might as well take a brush and paint a green stripe on your PC,” St. Arnaud says. CANARIE is leading the green charge with a $3-million call for proposals for computing and network technologies that reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Launched in June, the CANARIE Green IT Pilot Program has two objectives: to test the technical viability and usability of relocating computers and clouds to zero-carbon data centres and follow the sun/follow the wind grid; and to test the business case viability of offering carbon offsets (and/or equivalent services) to universities who reduce their carbon footprint by relocating computers and instrumentation to zero-carbon data centre. CANARIE expects to hand out $2 million for major data centre pilot projects and $1 million for developing business cases and smaller projects. The deadline for the call for proposals (June 29) may have come and gone by the time this reaches article publication, but there are plenty of other things for data centre operators to consider. One simple tool may be the least-mentioned of the three “R’s” of sustainability (reduce, reuse, recycle): reuse. It can be difficult to see the benefits of reusing old servers through the greenwash of new technologies purporting to save energy. St. Arnaud says many data centre operators already reuse as much as possible, moving former state-of-the-art boxes down the line to support less critical applications. “It’s only when servers get to be a decade old that they throw them into the recycling pile.” Aitken says older technology can only take you so far in a virtualized environment. Last-gen servers weren’t designed for virtual systems. “You might be limiting the ratios you can pull, because you’re going to run into bottlenecks,” like memory and IO. Sometimes it’s best to break off ties with earlier technologies. That’s what RackForce is doing. The company is shutting down one of its older data centres, because beside the green GigaCenter, it’s relatively expensive to run and it lacks efficient designs such as cold aisles. “Back then, you’d take an open space and push a bunch of cold air into it,” Fry says. “You end up with hot spots.” But the data centre in question isn’t exactly ancient. It was built in 2001. Still, over the years, RackForce has worked with IBM Corp’s Big Green engineering and consulting team to develop a practical formula for green data centre operation. “I think we’re going to be the greenest data centre on the planet,” Fry says. Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via email@example.com.