The Value of Efficiency-Aware Decision Making

My Chevy Volt displays my gas mileage.  In fact, I knew what the mileage performance would be before I bought the car. It was a factor in my purchase choice.

In addition to cars, most large appliances display power use along with Energy-Star certification. Residential air conditioners display standard energy efficiency ratings (SEER).   Even large commercial building air conditioners have to meet standard rating conditions for efficiency.

Yet, it is only recently that efficiency ratings have been specified for data center cooling.  The primary reason is that for years, manufacturers of cooling units for mission critical facilities avoided efficiency ratings requirements claiming that, because their products were used for process cooling versus comfort cooling, efficiency standards shouldn’t apply.  Fortunately, ASHRAE took up the charge and updated Standard 90.1 so that equipment covered by ASHRAE Standard 127 is required to meet minimum efficiency standards.  Standard 90.1 has been adopted by the Department of Energy as a federal energy standard and is now referenced by many code authorities.

While useful and certainly progress, the choice enabled by these two standards is just a start.  Certainly new equipment can and should be compared based on energy efficiency ratings.  However we all know that equipment efficiency will vary considerably through use. It would also be useful to be able to  view and compare the operational efficiency of existing equipment in order  to evaluate which machines are working well, which should be replaced (using the new equipment efficiency ratings as a baseline of comparison) –  and how much efficiency could be gained (and calculated from an ROI perspective) through replacement.

Some HVAC manufacturers have taken up this challenge. NTT, for example, provides the coefficient of performance for its computer room air conditioners in real time, viewable on the front panel of each unit and through a communications interface.  We commend them.

The ability to compare initial purchase energy efficiency ratings against actual performance over time for a particular machine, gives data center managers the ability to not only track and evaluate a machine for individual performance durability, and compare its performance with that of similar machines.  Mechanisms and procedures can be put in place for maintenance as degradation is spotted.   Inefficient machines can be used less, fixed or phased out.

We challenge mission critical cooling system manufacturers to pull back the veil of secrecy on energy efficiency.  The time for transparency is at hand because this information is knowable.  The combination of smart sensors and analytics technology can already report dynamic machine-to-machine efficiency as this information is required to drive cooling optimization.  The smart decision is for HVAC manufacturers to get out ahead of this data, and use efficiency reporting as a differentiator and means of driving continual improvement.

Just as mandatory EPA mileage ratings and rising gas prices changed consumer buying decisions – and drove car manufacturers to offer cars with better gas mileage, more granular energy performance ratings will improve the efficiency of cooling equipment.  And this benefits all of us.


Yes, DCIM Systems ARE like ERP Systems, Critical for Both Cost and Risk Management

Technology and manufacturing companies nearly all use sophisticated ERP systems for oversight on the myriad functions that contribute to a company’s operation.  Service companies use SAP. 

Data center managers more typically use their own experience.   With all due respect to this experience, the complexity of today’s data center has long surpassed the ability of any human or even group of humans, to manage it for maximum safety and efficiency.

As data centers have come to acknowledge this fact, they are increasingly adopting DCIM, the data center’s answer to ERP.   The similarities between ERP systems and DCIM are striking.

Just as manufacturing and technology firms needed a system to manage the complexity of operations, data center operations have grown and matured to the state that such systems are now required as well.

 Data Center Knowledge’s  Jason Verge says that “… [DCIM] is being touted as the ERP for the data center; it is addressing a complicated challenge.  When a device is introduced changes or fails, it changes the make-up of these complex facilities.”

Mark Harris of Nlyte said in a related Data Center Journal article: “DCIM was envisioned to become the ERP for IT.  It was to become the enabler for the IT organization to extend and manage their span of control, much like all other organizations (Sales, Engineering, manufacturing, Finance, etc.) had adopted over the years.”

Just like ERP systems, DCIM attempts to de-silo and shed light, along with management control, on cost and waste, while also addressing risk concerns.   In initial DCIM deployments the focus has understandably been on asset management.  Understanding the equipment you have and if this equipment is appropriate for your challenges was the right place to start. However, DCIM vendors and users quickly realized that elimination of energy waste, particularly energy wasted by unused IT assets, was another useful area of focus.  Cooling as a resource or even area of waste, was a tertiary concern.  Business managers no longer have this luxury.  The cost of cooling and the risk of a cooling/heating-related data center failure is too high.  As Michelle Bailey, VP of 451 Datacenter Initiatives and Digital Infrastructure said in a recent webinar on Next Generation Data Centers, Data centers have become too big to fail.  She also said that data centers are still using imprecise measurements of accountability – which don’t match up to business goals.  Processes must be made more transparent to business managers, and that metrics must be established and tie directly back to business goals.

Data center managers can and do make extremely expensive energy-related decisions from a cost perspective in order to reduce risk.  These may not even be bad decisions.  But the issue is that, without site visibility and the transparency that Michelle suggests above, business managers don’t realize that these decisions are being made at all, or that there may be options available which, with more analysis, make more sense from a business cost and risk trade-off perspective. And, while cost is one driver of the need for management oversight, waste (and its obvious effect on cost), is another.

As an example, a facility manager may turn his chiller plant down a degree to manage his cost function and perception of risk control.  This action has the cost equivalent of expensing a Tesla, but likely has no visibility to management.  Nor, typically, does the facility manager realize that he has less expensive and even less risky alternatives, because he/she has never had to consider them.   Facility managers are not traditionally accountable to energy savings.  They are accountable to uptime.  This thinking is outdated.  The two are no longer mutually exclusive.  In fact they are inextricably tied.  Proactive and intelligently managed energy saves money and reduces downtime risk by reducing the possibility of cooling failures.  If DCIM, like an ERP system, is used to understand and manage where cost – and waste- is being generated, it must specifically address and incorporate cooling infrastructure.

DCIM systems, offering granular data center information, aggregated and analyzed for business case analysis enables such oversight and with this, improved operational management.



Cooling Doesn’t Manage Itself

Cooling Doesn’t Manage Itself

Of the primary components driving data center operations – IT assets, power, space and cooling – the first three command the lion’s share of attention.  Schneider Electric (StruxureWare), Panduit (PIM), ABB (Decathalon), Nlyte, Emerson (Trellis) and others have created superb asset and power tracking systems.   Using systems like these and others, companies can get a good idea as to where their assets are located, how to get power to them and even how to optimally manage them under changing conditions.

Less well understood and, I would argue, not understood at all, is how to get all the IT-generated heat out of the data center, and as efficiently as possible.

Some believe that efficient cooling can be “designed in,” as opposed to operationally managed, and that this is good enough.

On the day a new data center goes live the cooling will, no doubt, operate superbly.  That is, right up until something changes – which could happen the next day, weeks or months later.  Even the most efficiently designed data centers eventually operate inefficiently. At that point, your assets are at risk and you probably won’t even know it.  Changes and follow-in inefficiencies are inevitable.

As well, efficiency by design only applies to new data centers.  The vast majority of data centers operating today are aging. All of them have degraded with incremental cooling issues over time.   IT changes, infrastructure updates, failures, essentially any and all physical data center changes or incidents, affect cooling in ways that may not be detected through traditional operations or “walk around” management.

Data center managers must manage their cooling infrastructure as dynamically and closely as they do their IT assets.  The health of the cooling system directly impacts the health of those very same IT assets.

Further, cooling must be managed operationally.  Beyond the cost savings of continually optimized efficiency, cooling management systems provide clearer insight into where to add capacity, redundancy, potential thermal problems, and areas of risk.

Data centers have grown beyond the point where they can be managed manually.  It’s time stop treating cooling as the red-headed step-child of data centers.  Cooling requires the same attention and sophisticated management systems that are in common use for IT assets.  There’s no time to lose.

2012 Retrospective

It’s getting better all the time.

Despite our relentless drive to consume more and more data, driven by ever more interesting and arguably useful multimedia applications, energy consumption of data centers is growing slower than would be predicted from historical trends.

For that success, we should be proud, while remaining focused on even greater efficiency innovation.

Large companies have stepped up with powerful sustainability initiatives which impact energy use throughout their enterprise. We’ve gotten better at leveraging natural resources, like outside air to moderate data center temperatures.  We are using denser, smarter racks for space and other efficiencies. Data center cooling units are built with variable speed devices improving energy efficiency machine-by-machine. Utility companies are increasingly offering sophisticated and results-generating incentives to jump-start efficiency programs.

These and other contributing factors are making a difference, clearly proven in Jonathan Koomey’s Growth in Data Center Electricity Use 2011 report which showed a flattening, versus a lockstep correlation of energy usage to data center growth. Koomey and other analyst growth estimates projected a doubling of world data center energy usage from 2005 to 2010.  Actual growth rates were closer to 56%, a reduction that Koomey attributes both to fewer than expected server installations – and a reduced use of electricity per server.

I am proud of what our industry – and what our company – has achieved.  Consider some of this year’s highlights.

The New York Times raised the profile – and the ire  – of the data center industry calling attention to the massive energy consumed by, well, consumers.  Data center facilities and analysts alike responded with criticism, saying that the article ignored the many and significant sustainability and energy use reductions now actively in use.

Vigilent received an astounding 8 industry awards this year – recognizing our technology innovation, business success and workplace values. I’m very proud of the fact that several of these awards were presented by or achieved in partnership with our customers.  For example, Vigilent and NTT won the prestigious Uptime GEIT 2012 award in the Facility Product Deployment Category.  NTT Facilities with NTT Communications received the 2012 Green Grid Grand Prix award, recognizing NTT’s innovative efforts in raising the energy efficient levels of Japan by using Vigilent and contributing DCIM tools.  And Verizon, in recognition of our support for their commitment to continuing quality and service, presented us with their Supplier Recognition award in the green and sustainability category.

We moved strongly into Japanese and Canadian markets with the help of NTT Facilities and Telus, both of whom made strategic investments in Vigilent following highly successful deployments.  Premiere Silicon Valley venture firm Accel Partners became an investor early in the year.

We launched Version 5 of our intelligent energy management system adding enhanced cooling system control with Intelligent Analytics-driven trending and visualization, along with a new alarm and notification product to further reduce downtime risk.

And, perhaps most satisfyingly of all, we helped our customers avert more than a few data center failures through real-time monitoring and intercession, along with early notification of possible issues.

This year, we will reduce energy consumption by more than 72 million kWh in the US alone.  And this figure grows with each new deployment.  We do this profitably, and with direct contribution to our customer’s bottom line as well through energy cost savings.

Things are getting better. And we’re just getting started.

Cleantech Evolves

Smart Loading for the Smart Grid – New Directions in Cleantech

I recently participated in a TiE Energy Panel (The Hottest Energy Startups: Companies Changing the Energy Landscape), with colleagues from Primus Power, Power Assure, Mooreland Partners and Gen110.

The panel concurred that the notion of Cleantech – and the investment money that follows it – has shifted from a focus on energy generation to a focus on energy management.   To date, this is primarily because cheaper energy sources, hyped in early Cleantech press, haven’t materialized.  It’s hard to compete with heavily subsidized incumbent energy sources, much less build a business for what’s perceived as a commodity business.  There are exceptions, like solar energy development, but other alternative sources have languished financially despite their promise.

The investment shift toward energy management is also a result of emerging efficiency-focused technology.  Data Center Infrastructure Management or DCIM is all about smart management – with an emphasis on energy.  Gartner believes that there are some 60+ companies in this space, which is rapidly gaining acceptance as a data center requirement.

This shift is also supported by the convergence of other technology growth areas, such as big data and cloud computing, both of which play well with energy management.   As our increasingly sensor-driven environment creates more and more data – big data – its volume has surpassed the ability of humans to manage it.

And yet the availability of this data, accurate, collected in real-time, inclusive of the dimensions of time and location, represents real promise.  Availability and analysis of this information within individual corporations and perhaps shared more broadly via the cloud, will reveal continuous options for improving efficiency and will likely point to entirely new means of larger scale energy optimization through an integrated smart grid.

The days of facility operators running around with temperature guns and clipboards – although still surprisingly common today – is giving way to central computer screens with consolidated and scannable, actionable data.

This is an exciting time.  I’m all for new ideas and the creation of less expensive, less environmentally harmful ways to generate energy.  But as these alternative options evolve, I am equally excited by the strides industry has made for the smarter use of the resources we have.

The wave of next generation energy management is still rising.

2011 Reflections

There is a saying in the MEP consulting business: “no one ever gets sued for oversizing.” That fear-driven mentality also affects the operation of mechanical systems in data centers, which accounts for why data centers are over-cooled at great expense.  But few facility managers know by how much.  The fact is that it has been easier – and to date –safer to over-cool a data center as the importance of the data it contains has increased and with that importance, the pressure to protect it.

Last year that changed.  With new technology, facility managers know exactly how much cooling is required in a data center, at any given time. And, perhaps more importantly, technology can provide warning – and reaction time – in the rare instances when temperatures increase unexpectedly. With this technology, data center cooling can now be “dynamically right-sized.”  The risk of dynamic management can be made lower than manual operation, which is prone to human error.

In our own nod to the advantages of this technology, we re-named the company I co-founded in 2004, from Federspiel Corporation to Vigilent Corporation.  As our technology increased in sophistication, we felt that our new name, denoting vigilance and intelligent oversight of facility heating and cooling operations, was more reflective of the new reality in data center cooling management.   Last year, through smart, automated management of data center energy consumption, Vigilent reduced carbon emissions and energy consumption of cooling systems by 30-40%.  These savings will continue year after year, benefiting not only those companies’ bottom line, but also their corporate sustainability objectives.   These savings have been accomplished while maintaining the integrity and desired temperatures of data centers of all sizes and configurations in North America, Canada and Japan.

I’m proud of what we have achieved last year.  And I’m proud of those companies who have stepped up to embrace technology that can replace fear with certainty, and waste with efficiency.