Data centers are just the start of unsustainable IT
Monday, August 10, 2009 at 08:32PM
Toby Considine in Data Center, Enterprise Interaction, Intelligent Buildings

Lots of people consider data centers, those great energy sucking heat producing resource hogs. Data centers have become the PR battlegrounds for corporate sustainability. Heads of large corporations have been known to charter jets to inspect operations of data centers and declare their interest in reducing carbon footprints. This is somewhat overwrought; that flight may have a larger carbon footprint that savings for a year. Such posturing is well known; today, I am writing of IT’s unsustainable interactions with basic building operations.

I am not concerned today with the workstations left on all night to support overnight patches. That too is well known. Besides, any competent IT manager who manages his PCs by policy has had a palliative long ago. Group policy extensions for energy management have been available for years. The Windows 2008 server policy extensions make is straightforward to manage workstation energy use.

The rogue data center is one of the more common barriers to more sustainable building operations. The rogue data center includes the server in the law office supply closet. On the college campus, it includes the small Beowulf cluster under the post-doc’s desk. That post doc may bike to work, with a save-the planet logo on his back pack, but his rogue data center burns energy night and day and requires the building to do so as well.

Rogue data centers prevent any reasonable program of building set-backs. Set-backs are simply doing in commercial space what a programmable thermostat does at home. Setbacks program the building to use less energy when unoccupied, but they run afoul of heat from the rogue data center. At UNC, rogue data centers are revealed after spring break, when even the least controlled buildings are manually set back. They overheat and their owners are on a rampage…

But even in an environment with better control over policy and server security, the communications closets present a significant challenge to sustainable operation of buildings.

At UNC, most of the buildings have pneumatic controls. This means they are very reliable at keeping the building at a fixed temperature all of the time. We are trying several approaches that have recently come to market to let us do setbacks, i.e., raise the night-time temperature in the summer. We can put digital radio-controlled thermostats on the walls and turn them down based on a program. We have had some problems, such as the heater coming on to heat the building up to the new temperature. It seems that these systems need some more work

We also ran into another problem. The communications closets in these older buildings get their air conditioning from the rest of the building. The communications closets are filled network gear that generates a lot of heat. When the buildings are set back, the equipment in the communications closets overheats.

For now, we are building Rube Goldberg-style work-arounds. We are putting SNMP temperature sensors in the closets. When things get to hot, they send alarms to the data center. The data center can then send a standard message to the building’s wireless retrofits to cool the building for an hour.

The needs of IT remain a regular hurdle on the road to sustainability.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (
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