RealTime IT News

The Cool Thing About Data Centers

Reporter's Notebook: When I covered computing in the 1990s, speed ruled. Intel-based PC makers battled Apple and others over who had the fastest systems. IBM, HP, SGI and others competed to be crowned speediest workstation. And so on.

When the latest speeds and feeds were the main thing to write about, I used to joke with other tech reporters that, no matter how boring the latest announcement might be, at least we weren't writing for "Refrigerator World."

Well, be careful what you (don't) wish for.

There's a burst of interest in issues related to cooling the data center these days, and I find myself covering cooling systems, fans, airflow, energy and power savings schemes.

It turns out my fears were unfounded. I joked about the monotony of writing for the mythical "Refrigerator World," where a front-page story might be about the latest ice cube dispenser or crisper enclosure.

But the cooling and energy issues IT faces are hardly as frivolous, and there's some pretty fundamental innovation in the works to try and deal with today's and tomorrow's energy challenges.

"Talk about your variable costs. Any enterprise today that's not looking at their energy costs and whether they can use energy more efficiently in any IT function is nuts," said Clint Wilder, a former colleague and 20-year veteran IT reporter.

"In the 90s, energy was relatively cheap," Wilder said. "Data centers have always been energy hogs, but no one cared back then. They do now."

Sun Microsystems even sees the emergence of a new IT position: the Power Manager. Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 systems at Sun, told internetnews.com in an e-mail that the job takes a more holistic systems-management approach.

"This person would determine which servers and technologies best suit a company's needs based on the overall IT budget, the energy budget and capacity, and then select the right mix of systems and software that can reduce costs," said Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 systems at Sun, in an e-mail to internetnews.com.

Technologies include spinning down disk drives when not needed, stepping down the number of cores used, bringing extra systems into a pool, and using virtualization techniques to increase utilization of servers and storage pools, added Graham.

Whether "Power Manager" or some other energy management-related title comes to the fore, it's clear energy concerns are fast becoming important to IT operations.

"We have a lot of clients in campus-like environments, and they are running out of room in terms of purchasing power, Adam Braunstein, senior research analyst with Robert Frances Group, told . "The power company is saying 'We can't give you any more.' Technology solutions and new information sources are emerging. One example is the Green Grid, a kind of online clearinghouse of environmental best practices in the data center, that AMD, Sun, IBM, HP and others recently formed.

But there are few, if any, cookie-cutter solutions to the energy challenge, and that's part of what makes it interesting for a technology reporter.

New solutions will emerge, some great and some over-hyped and over-priced. And you know it's a real industry when vendors take it seriously enough to rip one another.

Sun, for example, recently called advances in fan technology developed by HP and IBM "nothing but smoke and mirrors."

IDC analyst John Humphreys agreed there's a lot of experimenting going on, as companies wrestle with the energy-consumption beast. He said as much at a recent HP-sponsored event on cooling issues.

"There is really no magic bullet. It's something customers are attacking at multiple levels."