AT&T’s role in EPA’s Energy Star for data centre study

| September 11, 2008

AT&T’s SVP, IT Operations, Rick FeltsAs one of the participants in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Data Centre study, AT&T is no stranger to the greening of IT. But when it comes to defining what is green, Rick Felts, AT&T’s senior vice president, Information Technology Operations, prefers to choose his words carefully. In this exclusive interview with Green Telecom editor, Tony Chan, Felts outlines the operator’s role in the EPA study, as well as the initiatives that AT&T has already taken to drive energy efficiency inside its facilities. More importantly, Felts points out that an often wide gap exists between claimed efficiency gains from vendors and the business requirements of corporations. While a complete technology refresh will always yield efficiency gains, there isn’t always a business case for such drastic measures.

Green Telecom: Can you please give an overview of AT&T’s participation in the EPA’s Energy Star for data centres initiative?

Rick Felts: AT&T is providing monthly reports to a subcontractor of the EPA and participating in forum discussions on the value of the collected information and the recommendations for interpreting the data as facility energy performance indicators.

How many AT&T facilities will be providing data to the EPA program? How big are these facilities? And what are their primary purposes?

AT&T is providing data on four of our facilities. These facilities range from 50,000 to 150,000 sq. ft. of conditioned floor space. The primary purpose of two centres is for internal data processing necessary to support the products and services provided by AT&T. The infrastructure consists of industry servers to mid-range servers to mainframe operations and the data network to connect all AT&T locations. The other two centres are Internet data centres that serve the hosting needs of our customer base.

In the EPA program, what kind of data is being collected by AT&T for submission? How is the data being collected?

AT&T is providing the total building power and the sub-metered MEP (mechanical/electrical plant) power. The IT power consumption is being monitored and recorded through the building management systems and reported monthly to the EPA subcontractor.

What kinds of energy efficiency initiatives has AT&T implemented in its data centres?

Our initiatives are best summarized by the bullets below:

• We have implemented air flow improvements by sealing raised floor environments and cabinets
• Improved HVAC energy consumption by raising the temperature in the data centres
• Reduced unnecessary air velocity
• Shortened the distance of cooling source and heat loads
• Mechanically separated hot and cold air flows
• In some locations we have deployed variable speed controls for AC systems
• Embarked on technology refresh of IT systems that use less energy (<=25% reduction)per device • Enabled power management in some systems • Deployed virtual systems and shared storage • Increased partitioning of systems • Enabled motion sensing light switches on the data centre floors • Reduced unmanned CRTs • Renegotiated power contracts • Established sell-back agreements with utilities • Storage optimization programs to reduce unnecessarily stored data • Application rationalization of 30% in 2007-2008 • In 2008 joined The Green Grid and agreed to participate in the EPA ENERGY STAR rating development effort for data centres.

Are there similar initiatives to reduce energy consumption inside the AT&T networks?

Absolutely. The network organization, which supports our customer base, has developed and managed its own initiatives and activities from a sustainability perspective for some time. Because of this, the various operating organizations at AT&T collaborate on multiple management levels to unify AT&T’s sustainability strategy and plans, including working councils and an executive-level steering committee. Sustainable business practices are extremely important to AT&T and are embedded in our corporate direction as a company.

How do you go about measuring power usage of the data centre infrastructure? What were the results and were there any surprises?

AT&T has monitored power consumption for some time in its data centres using the environmental probes and management systems of the buildings. What is new in the industry is to identify the differing classes of power and how it is used. AT&T has been defining the differences in power consumption since before the dot-com days, when we first began operating Internet data centres. Sub-metering in enterprise data centres has been segregated between IT load, admin facility load and HVAC. We have discovered the need to see beyond the supply segregation and have a strategy to sub-meter all environmental resources at the distribution level.

The industry typically assumes one watt of cooling for each watt of IT power. We found that we were a little better than that number. The greatest surprise was that at any given time, we had retired servers that remained powered on, and that in many cases HVAC systems were running at 100 percent without carrying the associated loads. We immediately set out to reduce or eliminate unused, yet powered systems.

When “sorting through the vendor hype on Green IT,” what was some of the “hype” you discovered? What were some of the technologies that offered real benefits?

In managing data centres, our focus and priority is on maximizing energy efficiency by using less kilowatt hours of electricity to do more work. The greatest hype comes from vendors offering services that “guarantee” reduction of energy consumption. This is usually coupled with a full technology refresh in mind. These services usually include using the professional services team to analyze your data centre, generate a report saying that you’re not efficiently using it, giving you colour maps of your computational fluid dynamics (airflow), and then pitching the tech refresh of all of your equipment. So, the moral to the story is to pick your trusted partners effectively. Much of this data can be useful but the appropriate business cases are needed to ensure the cost/benefit analysis justifies the effort. Also, there are no inexpensive guarantees.

From a hardware vendor perspective, it is true that most OEM partners’ systems are more energy efficient than in the past and some have made sustainability a priority in their equipment design and life cycle. The technologies that have offered real benefits are those that incorporate the physical facility infrastructure into their solution. An example is a server that communicates its environmental conditions back to your surveillance centre where the data can be used by support systems to adjust the environmental factors. Other examples are power management solutions, soft wall containment curtains, and on-demand computing environments. However, each of these technologies is only part of managing energy consumption in the data centre. The real benefits over time are achieved with a comprehensive strategy that encompasses all of these techniques.

How much energy/power have you managed to save with the deployment of Green IT technologies?

By deploying floor seals, cabinet blanks and sealing cable chases we have saved as much as 6 percent of the facility energy consumption.

How much more are you paying to “green” your data centre?

The price of efficient energy consumption is coming down, mostly due to greater demand. We have targeted opportunities for energy savings that have a five year ROI or less and incorporated them into our Data Centre Optimization Program. These opportunities address increased capacity and improved reliability, but with an energy-efficient focus. In addition, our normal, annual spend on equipment now includes power management and other environmentally and energy-efficient technologies as a requirement.

What exactly does “green servers” mean?

“Green” has become an over-used and frequently misused term. For the IT function at AT&T, our emphasis is doing more work with less energy and using products that are minimally impacting on all aspects of the environment, including end-of-life disposal. Thus, we think a “green server” is one that uses less energy to produce the same or more work than its peers. It doesn’t waste energy when it isn’t working; it has a low impact on water and water waste; and when its end-of-service life is realized, the parts can be recycled or can be disassembled in a low impact, responsible way.

Is greening your data centres a competitive advantage? How? (by using less power so you can charge customers less? Because it meets customer’s CSR requirements?)

The IT operation of AT&T is only one supporting aspect of a much larger effort to improve the sustainability of our products and our process. This results in a better return to our shareholders and better value to our customers. We also believe that AT&T’s services and solutions offer sustainable opportunities to our clients, by connecting people with technologies to offset travel requirements, by reducing the amount of end user computing devices and by combining media appliances in the home. We also believe in responsible stewardship. By making our data centres operate in a more efficient and sustainable manner, we contribute to the larger corporate goal. To the extent that we outperform our competitors in ways that improve sustainability and reduce our costs, we enhance our competitive positioning.

Are customers looking specifically for “green” services?

Customers are at different points in their own sustainability journey. Some are looking for partners who share their broad values in their sustainable behaviour. Others are looking for ways to cut their energy consumption in these times of rapidly increasing energy costs. Regardless of where our customers are with respect to their thinking on sustainability, we think that we have a wide array of solutions that will help customers meet their needs.

Have you looked into sourcing renewable energy sources for your data centres?

Energy sourcing is not generally a decision made by the IT department. Nevertheless, AT&T is evaluating renewable energy sources to see how well we can support different aspects of the corporate operations. While most renewable energy is not now cost-competitive, we believe the economics will change over time. We want to understand how we may need to adjust our operations to accommodate the nuances of different sources of energy.

How does US $100/barrel oil impact the costs of running a data centre? Has energy gone up on a per Kw basis? Is this a concern?

Energy is a substantial input to the data centre operation. Energy costs continue to rise, and there is little reason to think the pattern will change. Indeed, energy cost inflation will likely accelerate. Increasing costs for competitive operations is always a concern and is a driver to improving data centre efficiency. However, increasing energy cost also is an opportunity for the Information Communication Technology (ICT) industry. We have powerful tools and products that can help customers do more while using less energy. ICT has the potential to improve the quality of life in this country while at the same time reduce its consumption of energy and, more specifically, fossil fuels.

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Category: Applications, Data centres, Green corporations, Interviews, Networks, Renewables

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