When you click on a link, a server in a datacenter somewhere gets the job of finding the web page or process you requested and delivering it to your browser over the Internet. One user on the Internet and one server at the other end serving one web page is quite trivial. With millions of users around the world visiting the web site at unpredictable times and making unpredictable requests for millions of documents, pictures, music, videos, processes and transactions, it can become a nightmare for the people who are managing the datacenter. In the last five years there has been a six-fold increase in computing capacity and a 160 fold increase in storage. Along with the increase in capacity comes a huge increase in complexity and in electrical power usage.
Imagine looking through a window into a corporate datacenter (even though many of them are underground and have no windows) and you would see thousands of steel boxes mounted in six-foot-high racks with cables everywhere. This part of the problem has been addressed by new technology called virtualization, pioneered by IBM decades ago but greatly refined in recent years. (See "Virtually Real or Really Virtual"). Imagine a virtual datacenter. When you peer through the window you see three boxes — a server, a disk storage device, and a network card. There is a person at a large video console who is looking at what appears to be a dashboard. It shows a pictorial diagram of all the things going on in the datacenter. When one application area needs more server, storage, or network capacity the virtual datacenter automatically re-allocates capacity from another application area that currently has excess capacity. The virtual datacenter keeps resources balanced, and when a component fails, the virtual datacenter automatically allocates a spare or underutilized component to take over. Virtual environments allow a big reduction in complexity but the even bigger problem is the huge growth in electrical power. In many cases companies are not able to get the additional power they need either because the power company does not have the capacity or because the datacenter is not designed to accommodate the physical changes necessary. Even if the power was readily available there is a negative impact on the environment. Hence, Big Green.
IBM is redirecting $1 billion per year across its businesses, mobilizing the company’s resources to dramatically increase the level of energy efficiency in IT. The plan includes new products and services to enable IBM clients to sharply reduce data center energy consumption and make them more “green”. The problem is sizable. Big companies spend tons of money on power. In IBM’s case it is a half billion dollars per year. The priority has been on getting the servers and storage that are needed to achieve various business results — need another feature for the web site, throw in another server. Have growth in web visitors — throw some more servers at it.
IBM is leading by example. One of their "green" projects is consolidating 3,900 servers onto 30 new top of the line mainframe servers. The result is not only more compute power but dramatically less use of electrical power and space. One of IBM’s customers went from 300 servers to six. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center consolidated 1,000 servers onto 300 and saved $20m in costs while freeing up datacenter space for more hospital beds.
Datacenters have been popping up everywhere — most of them built before 2001. The datacenters are very large rooms full of many different kinds of equipment — designed in the same way they were decades ago — like a kitchen where the stove puts out more heat so you turn on the air conditioning to cool down the entire room. The chef is comfortable and others in the room are freezing. IBM is designing datacenters for customers where cooling "zones" are specific to the type of equipment in each zone. Green datacenters not only save space and energy but also benefits the environment overall. In the past the electric bill has been allocated as overhead to all parts of the company. Redesigns are saving many millions of dollars. With the huge growth of energy for the IT infrastructure the CFO is reallocating energy expenditures from general overhead to the CIO so they can see what IT is really costing.
IBM has made a sizeable consulting business out of helping customers understand their energy usage and then designing and supervising the building of new Datacenters and cooling equipment. Having overseen the construction of thirty million square feet of advanced space, IBM has learned a lot. The virtualization is helping a lot too. It can now optimize the use of servers around energy use. For example, as workload declines, perhaps at night, servers can be virtualized and "moved" to underutilized servers and then automatically turn off the servers that are not needed for a few hours.
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