How Green Data Centers Save Money

Going green doesn't have to be just an exercise in tree hugging. It can have a positive effect on your company's budget, too.

By Stephanie Overby
Mon, March 26, 2007

CIO — Last summer when Wendy Cebula was shopping for a new vehicle, energy efficiency and lower emissions topped her list of requirements, along with four-wheel drive (her family lives on a hill). Cebula, then CIO at VistaPrint, a $152 million online supplier of custom print services, eventually chose a hybrid model instead of the traditional SUV. Even though she didn’t think the incremental savings on gas would make up for the higher sticker price, she says “it was the right thing to do as a human being.”

But as a corporate executive, Cebula, now VistaPrint’s COO, can’t lead with her heart. The right thing to do is whatever enables the business to grow. Those decisions come down to dollars and sense, not what’s best for the planet. But every now and then, the two converge.

In late 2005, Cebula noticed her data center’s costs were growing. The company, whose operations are almost completely automated, was adding 100,000 customers a month—and growing at nearly 60 percent a year. There was no sign the demand for data necessary to serve those customers would stabilize. When Cebula and Aaron Branham, VistaPrint’s vice president of technology and operations, dug into data center operations in detail, they discovered that energy costs were rising significantly.

If there were some way to lower power costs or increase energy efficiency, they could cut expenses. To Cebula, an avid recycler who tries to impart environmental awareness to her kids, doing so would be a double win. She could do “what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the bottom line,” she explains.

Until recently, the environmental impact of the data center was largely ignored. But today, energy experts estimate that data centers gobble up somewhere between 1.5 percent and 3 percent of all electricity generated in the United States. At the top of the range, that’s about the amount of electricity it takes to power the entire state of Michigan for a year. Market research company IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher) estimates that companies spent $26.1 billion to power and cool servers worldwide in 2005. That’s more than was spent to power all the commercial buildings in 17 states—from Delaware to Florida and west to Texas, according to the Department of Energy’s most recent energy consumption survey.

And that’s not all. According to the Uptime Institute, a consortium of companies devoted to maximizing efficiency and uptime in the data center, more than 60 percent of the power used to cool equipment in the data center is completely wasted. In fact, notes a recent study by the group, energy costs have replaced real estate as the primary data center expense. “Data centers that used to cost $10 million now cost $100 million,” says Jonathan Koomey, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That kind of expenditure gets C-level attention.”

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