Industry Outlook is a regular Data Center Journal Q&A series that presents expert views on market trends, technologies and other issues relevant to data centers and IT. This week, Industry Outlook asks Joe Richard of Schneider Electric about changes to medium-voltage switchgear…

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Today, many companies are reaching a crossroads. Volatile energy prices that can change fast and frequently (varying by geographic region and even time of day) combined with a still-recovering economy have led many organizations to choose predictability and budget certainty over beating market price. Despite the assumed benefits of buying energy in bulk and locking prices in for extended lengths of time, this approach is often more expensive, especially in situations where data centers have paid for more power than they use. A growing energy-procurement trend is enabling companies to realize better and more flexible ways to achieve budget certainty while also lowering energy costs.

Small and medium-size data centers traditionally manage their energy purchasing with facility-level personnel, if at all. But there is a developing need for larger data centers to gain greater control over operating costs, better understand spending categories and save money wherever possible. This trend has led managers to rethink the way they purchase energy and look to avenues of energy procurement. By that term I mean the process whereby a company actively manages its utility contracts and bases purchasing decisions not only on contract length but also through strategic sourcing opportunities. These opportunities could include separating management-fee costs from actual power costs, negotiating currency exchange rates for international facilities and waiving security deposits from base contracts (which can amount to millions of dollars).

Outside factors contribute to the success of each energy-procurement initiative, such as data center location, grid stability, procurement options, usage patterns (size/shape of load) and the willingness of the utility to negotiate. Energy procurement, however, can provide a host of benefits for data center managers as they look to maximize utilization as well as respond to increasing efficiency pressures from customers, shareholders and the government. Through an intelligent energy-procurement strategy, data center operators will be able to achieve more price transparency with utilities. And given that energy accounts for 20–40% of total lifecycle costs, even the smallest rate reduction can equate to big savings in operating costs.

Additionally, when implementing data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools as part of an energy-procurement plan, data center managers can easily track IT and building load. This visibility can help managers identify peaks of high consumption and demand, in turn allowing them to proactively move or limit loads, capture more savings opportunities, and improve their ability to respond to short- term incentives. It can also allow them to better utilize the current infrastructure, freeing up stranded or unused capacity they may not have known they had. Just a small savings in capital costs or the ability to do more (even sell more) in the same location can equal big dollar gains.

By using an energy-procurement strategy, data centers can also open doors to a number of long-term opportunities beyond the initial cost savings and enhanced management capabilities. They include

  • Saving personnel time and effort through more-efficient data collection
  • Identifying actual consumption and spare capacity, allowing for informed growth
  • Monitoring supply chain and resources consumed to find savings opportunities
  • Developing more-accurate utility budgets that mitigate risks and plan for increases caused by rising commodity prices or usage
  • Increasing transparency by reporting energy data to stakeholders
  • Developing an energy strategy that is more integrated with business strategy
  • Identifying opportunities to shift compute load to other facilities
  • Centralizing disparate data centers under a single energy strategy

But although the concept of energy procurement may sound straight forward and the benefits tangible, securing the best price and a contract that meets budget and risk tolerance can be complicated and time consuming. To simplify the process, facility managers might consider using a partner that will provide needed market intelligence to guide them through the following questions so they can make confident, informed decisions while optimizing contract negotiations:

  • When should I initiate an energy-procurement strategy?
  • How does my data center’s geographic location affect my options?
  • How can I measure success, and what factors should I consider?
  • How can metering and information management best serve in an energy-procurement strategy?
  • How often should procurement contracts be renegotiated?
  • How long is the initial procurement process—research, negotiations, contract approval?
  • I have data centers in multiple locations being fed by a variety of utilities; is it possible to consolidate contracts? Is this strategy more beneficial?

From here, partners will guide data center managers by giving them the outside expertise, knowledge and capabilities they need to successfully overcome challenges and develop and implement a strategy that best fits their requirements. Consider these examples:

  • Businesses that have traditionally decentralized the procurement decision process find that adopting the same corporate-led strategy across all facilities can be complex. A third-party partner can often help remove internal struggles and move all facilities under a united executive leadership.
  • Understanding actual usage, how it is trending and (most importantly) peak consumption as it relates to spare capacity can be challenging. This fact has pushed some businesses to build pre-maturely or not use (even sell) excess capacity because they did not know their actual usage. Having usage data and the ability to track it over time can give managers the necessary tools to best utilize their space.
  • Large data center networks with a national footprint must understand and adhere to multiple complex municipal and state energy-pricing models and regulations. Third-party procurement specialists already work in these markets and will be able to provide the detailed knowledge needed to secure optimal pricing and negotiate beneficial contracts.

Poor energy-purchasing decisions can be costly. Although the ideal time to implement an energy-procurement strategy is during the initial data center planning phase, it is never too late to start an intelligent budgeting program. Taking a proactive approach to contract negotiations can empower businesses to make informed, confident decisions and enable them reap the many benefits of a custom energy-procurement strategy. Energy-procurement planning is becoming an increasingly popular option for data center operators looking for an effective and inexpensive way to understand how energy is used and immediately see a savings on utility bills.

Leading article image courtesy of juggernautco

About the Author

energy procurementLance Bishop is Director of Energy Management Services at Schneider Electric. He is responsible for Schneider Electric’s assessment-services team focusing on data center efficiency, availability and total cost of ownership. Comprising consultants and engineers, this team routinely helps clients optimize mission-critical space through changes in operation, equipment and management /monitoring of key components. The Energy Management Services team is a crucial step in Schneider Electric’s Mission Critical Services offering, which helps clients at each point in the life cycle of their data center.

Lance holds a B.A. in business administration from Baylor University and an M.B.A. from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. He currently serves as a technical contributor to The Green Grid, working on projects to improve data center energy efficiency and access to utility rebates. Lance also serves as the Green Schools Chair for the North Texas Chapter of the USGBC and has lobbied Congress on behalf of Green Building Standards. He is a Certified Energy Manager (CEM) and holds the designation of Accredited Professional in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED AP). In his free time, Lance writes informational articles for publications like Energy Manager Today and delivers educational presentations on improving energy efficiency in data centers, most recently at Gartner, AFCOM and 7X24.

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Zombies. Everything about them says “dead,” except that they just keep on going. The raised floor has many of the same characteristics: despite all manner of arguments and studies claiming it is no longer necessary in data center design, it is still present in the vast majority of facilities. The technical merits—or lack thereof—of using a raised floor have been considered at length, but what will determine if this long-time defining feature of data centers will live on (perhaps as part of the living dead)?

The Raised Floor Has Inertia

The raised floor was once a staple of the data center. Indeed, according to a Schneider Electric white paper (“Re-examining the Suitability of the Raised Floor for Data Center Applications”), it was so standard that “one common definition of a data center is that it is a computing space with a raised floor.” With decades of design experience backing this approach, a company facing a huge investment in a new facility could easily be forgiven for sticking with the tried-and-true approach, even if pundits and studies suggest otherwise. Uptime Institute data pegs use of raised floors at about 90% of data centers (or, at least, 90% of companies running data centers). For a much maligned design strategy, raised floors still have momentum.

Reasonable arguments still support the use of raised floors in certain cases. For instance, the configurability of overhead air ducts in slab (non-raised-floor) designs tends to be limited, which means that changes in rack arrangements can necessitate time-consuming and expensive changes to the cooling system—changes that are made even more difficult when performed on a live data center. When chilled air is delivered under a raised floor, however, simply rearranging perforated floor tiles is enough to change the cooling distribution. Also, the plenum under a raised floor offers room for cabling that doesn’t require the kind of added labor and infrastructure that overhead cabling calls for—cable racks or baskets, for instance.

Furthermore, raised floors do not exclude the possibility of other cooling methods, such as liquid cooling. The plenum can still provide cabling space, for instance, even if it’s not used to deliver cooling. Alternatively, cabling can be suspended above the racks to enable a less cluttered plenum for better cooling—an approach that the Australian Securities Exchange employed for its data center.

Shifting Momentum: Slab

Even though the vast majority of data centers still use a raised floor, building on a slab may capture the future. According to the Uptime Institute, only about 48% of companies plan to use raised floors—a distinct drop from the 90% currently using them. Arguments in favor of avoiding raised floors focus on several areas; the following are a few.

  • Improved cooling. The plenum under a raised floor can be subject to obstructions (particularly cabling) and other inefficiencies that hamper cooling. The general consensus is that a raised-floor design cannot meet the cooling needs of higher-density deployments (perhaps in the range of 8–10 kW per rack and up).
  • Load capacity. Although raised floors can be constructed to bear almost any weight, the capacity of the floor may become a concern if the data center grows faster than originally planned or new, heavier equipment is deployed beyond what the company had intended at construction time. Furthermore, seismic activity poses a danger to raised floors beyond what slabs face. Concomitantly, safety is also a concern: an employee who forgets to replace a floor tile, for instance, creates a significant hazard.
  • Expense. Simply bolting racks to a concrete floor is cheaper than building a raised floor. On the other hand, a slab design requires overhead cable-management infrastructure and cooling ducts (for air-cooled facilities). Depending on the dimensions of the building and the design strategy, the raised floor may consume too much space.
  • Cleaning. The plenum under a raised floor is a dirt and debris trap, but cleaning can be problematic. Furthermore, other problems such as addressing (and even identifying) moisture and breaches in walls plague this approach. Also, since out of sight is out of mind, the temptation to leave unused cabling and other junk in the plenum may be irresistible, particularly in a time-pressed environment, thus exacerbating the problem.
  • Security. Not only can a raised floor hide junk, it can also hide security threats, including even access points. This concern is particularly acute in the case of colocation facilities that serve multiple customers.

Reality in the Middle

The arguments against the raised floor are more convincing in some cases than others. To say it another way, not every data center is necessarily better off built on a slab rather than a raised floor. One of the critical considerations is power density: higher-density deployments may simply be unable to achieve the necessary cooling capacity or efficiency using a raised floor. (On the other hand, these implementations may be unable to achieve the necessary capacity with any kind of air-based cooling system.)

For certain data center designs, such as those that must accommodate extensive rearrangement of racks, a raised floor may be the best option. The costs of installing overhead cable-management systems and ductwork—combined with the periodic costs of rearranging that infrastructure—may make a hit to cooling efficiency well worth the price. So, from both a technical and cost standpoint, raised floors are not viable in all cases, but they remain a legitimate option in others.

The Hammer of Efficiency—and the Environment

Assuming the raised floor can be outdone in all cases by slab deployments with regard to energy efficiency, should the costs still be a concern? According to Schneider Electric’s Senior VP of Innovation Neil Rasmussen, “Anyone designing a new data center now with raised-floor cooling is being environmentally irresponsible.” He goes on to say that “the future is hard floor data centers because legacy cooling solutions are inappropriate for today’s high-density environments, and to provision dynamic power variation. Legacy cooling is inefficient, costly and wasteful from a carbon footprint perspective.” The matter of environmental stewardship is a tough one for data centers: they consume growing amounts of power, but they do so to serve growing demand. Furthermore, a little more efficiency is always possible—but it’s not always practical. At some point, a small efficiency improvement is a worthwhile sacrifice for the cost savings and other benefits that result. Finding this balance depends on the circumstances—and some of those circumstances may point to a raised floor, which may or may not be integral to cooling.

Conclusions

The raised-floor debate will drag on. Although the general consensus is that cooling using a standard raised-floor deployment is too inefficient for high-density data centers, legitimate reasons for using a raised floor still exist. Although the Uptime Institute estimates that only 48% of companies plan to use raised floors for future data centers, 48% of companies still plan to use them. That number may fall further over time, but it may settle at some proportion according to the requirements of different facilities. In the meantime, the living dead will still walk (or support) most data centers.

Images courtesy of cote and Nivaldo Arruda

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(WEB HOST INDUSTRY REVIEW) — Data center energy management provider Schneider Electric announced on Tuesday that it has acquired the intellectual property and software behind the Viridity EnergyCenter 2.0 platform, a DCIM management software.

This acquisition comes a month after Schneider Electric named Olivier Delepine its VP of the UAE and Gulf countries for APC by Schneider Electric.

According to the press release, the software enables the auto-discovery of IT assets to optimize capacity utilization. Schneider Electric says it will use this investment to improve the StruxureWare for Data Center Operations DCIM suite.

 

(WEB HOST INDUSTRY REVIEW) — Data center cooling solutions provider Schneider Electric announced on Thursday it has named Olivier Delepine the company’s vice president of the UAE and Gulf countries for APC by Schneider Electric, also known internally as IT business of Schneider Electric.

Delepine’s main responsibility will be to lead the consolidation of the company’s data center business in the region.

He is also mandated to plan and implement strategies to drive growth for the entire APC portfolio in the Gulf region through the deployment of profitable revenue streams and market expansion.

 

(WEB HOST INDUSTRY REVIEW) — Data center and managed services provider CoreLink Data Centers (www.corelink.com) that it has upgraded its UPS systems at its Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Seattle data centers through a partnership with Schneider Electric (www.schneiderelectric.com).

CoreLink announced in May that it expected the upgrade to be completed over the summer.

According to the announcement, this will enable CoreLink to increase its clients’ power cacaity in 200kW increments up to 600kW. The flexibility is ideal for its small- and medium-sized clients with changing requirements and growth.

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