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.

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As part of its earlier move in the summer of 2004, the company had inherited a data center in the basement of its existing building. The “free data center,” as Branham calls it, housed 18 racks of equipment by the time he arrived. Most of the gear was used for internal IT systems and development. They’d probably want to move that operation across the street with them. Or would they? The rework of the data center in Bermuda got Cebula and Branham thinking. If they could cut energy costs by making different gear choices, was there anything to be gained by moving the bulk of the Lexington data center elsewhere? While researching the Bermuda data center revamp, Cebula had learned that the power market in Massachusetts was perhaps the most expensive one in North America. “Outside of maybe Hawaii,” she adds. “Doing those cost comparisons opened our eyes and got us to run some of the numbers on power at different possible locations.”

VistaPrint had recently opened a 68,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Windsor, Canada, which could be expanded to accommodate a 100-rack data center. Cebula charged Branham with creating a business case for three options: building the new data center in the new Lexington space, building it in Windsor, or outsourcing it.

Unlike most IT departments, Vista­Print had all the information it needed to make the analysis—from real estate costs to electric bills—at hand. The majority of IT shops are in the dark about their data center energy costs because facilities management pays the bills. Facilities and IT tend to operate on different planes. “Facilities people know how much power is being used, but they don’t know anything about the equipment,” says Koomey. The result is what the Uptime Institute’s Brill calls “the invisible crisis.” IT has little incentive to make more conservative choices about power consumption, and the results are not sustainable. AFCOM, an association for data center professionals, predicts that power failures or power limits will halt data center operations at more than 90 percent of companies over the next five years.

“Not a lot of IT people get down into the building of data centers,” admits Branham. “We definitely understand the total cost perspective,” says Cebula. “But even we were a bit surprised when doing the analysis of actual energy consumption.”

Branham’s analyses revealed some good news. Real estate costs would be cheaper in Canada ($7 per square foot in Windsor versus $27.45 in Lexington). But Windsor was a greener pasture in more ways than one. VistaPrint’s manufacturing facility is run on hydroelectric power, a renewable energy source that doesn’t entail fuel costs and comes at a lower and more stable price. (In the Boston area, electricity comes largely from generation facilities that run on coal, oil or nuclear power.) That’s why data hogs like Yahoo and Google have recently begun building operations in the Northwest near the Columbia River, a source of hydroelectric power. “Any small difference in energy consumption or energy costs can make quite a difference,” says Kumar. Hydroelectric power also creates little air pollution because, unlike fossil fuel–fired plants, it does not generate carbon dioxide. Even nuclear plants generate some thermal emissions.

Sure enough, thanks to a 12-cent per kilowatt-hour difference in electricity prices, Branham figured he would save more than $130,000 a year by locating in Canada. Those cost savings would improve as VistaPrint added racks to the facility—a near certainty at its current growth rate. Coupled with the discount on real estate, the Windsor option proved 10 percent cheaper than outsourcing—even with the capital expenditures.

Not everyone can just up and move a data center to a cheaper real estate market with a renewable energy source. “Banks, for example, may need to be in downtown Manhattan or central London,” says Kumar. “But what [VistaPrint is] doing makes a lot of sense for them.”

The Benefits of Green

The Bermuda project (which was completed at the end of last year) enables VistaPrint to shave 25 percent from its future hosting costs. And VistaPrint’s Windsor data center is scheduled to open this month. Branham plans to move many of the systems hosted in Lexington there (where the new virtual machines initially will occupy 10 to 12 racks), and the facility will also provide disaster recovery for the Bermuda data center (a service the company outsourced to Cable & Wireless). Cebula says VistaPrint is trying to make other eco-friendly choices, outside of IT. For example, the company bought an extraction system for its plant that recovers more paper waste, which VistaPrint can resell to recyclers. “What we’re finding is that the right thing to do environmentally and the right thing to do financially often go hand in hand,” she says. Some green options, like the new servers and the paper waste extractor, may involve up-front costs, Cebula says, but they usually pay for themselves and reap returns (such as revenue from reselling the excess paper and lower energy costs). Of course, not every green product or process has a payoff for everyone. Some of the new, environmentally friendly innovations in cooling technology, heat transfer and power supply for the data center (see “Fresh, Green Tech, Page 40) didn’t make the list at VistaPrint. “I did look at the price for a natural gas generator,” Branham says. “But the prices for natural gas fluctuate widely. Most people stay with diesel.”

Determining the environmental benefits of VistaPrint’s data center revamp is hard because of the complexities in how power is produced and consumed. But based on a model for calculating carbon emissions offered by Lawrence Berkeley, an average U.S. company that cuts its electricity consumption the way VistaPrint did in Bermuda would reduce its carbon emissions by nearly 612 metric tons.

Meanwhile, the benefits of VistaPrint’s data center changes go beyond saving money or saving the planet. Server standardization has made maintenance and upgrades easier. It’s also made IT more responsive to business needs. It used to take days to provision a new server in Bermuda. Now it takes minutes. “The business is much more satisfied with the time it takes to make changes or get new capacity,” says Cebula. “And with our better failover capabilities, we have fewer reductions in service.”

VistaPrint recently had a VMware server go down in Bermuda, and all the instances that were running on it restarted on another server. Total downtime was less than 10 minutes, with no human intervention. The business doesn’t understand why service is better, says Cebula, “but they understand the better service.” And the money IT might have been throwing away on sky-high electric bills in Massachusetts can be fueled into more sound IT investments.

“Green isn’t costing us money. Green is saving us money,” says Branham. “Interests are aligned.”

Senior Editor Stephanie Overby can be reached at


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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