The amount of energy used by data center servers, cooling equipment, and related infrastructure doubled in the United States and worldwide between 2000 and 2005, according to a new Stanford University study. The study credited a jump in the number of servers, driven by the insatiable demand for Web content -- such as music downloads, Internet telephony and video-on-demand. Over the same time period, power costs grew by 132 percent, according to the report by engineering professor Jonathon G. Koomey.

With electricity now representing up to 70 percent of the cost of operating a data center, small and mid-size businesses need to consider not just how fast -- but how efficiently -- their servers run.

Hardware vendors who traditionally competed by claiming faster processors are now responding with new equipment that addresses the rising cost of operating data center equipment and growing concerns about climate change. In recent months, Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems began marketing premium-priced servers that are more energy efficient but can save the added upfront cost in less than a year. 

Overspending on electricity

Cybertrails, a Phoenix-based technology consulting and data hosting company, was overspending on electricity by thousands of dollars per month because of inefficient power equipment in the company's data center. The uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that keep Cybertrails' servers running and protected against grid failure had excess capacity and were operating at just 60 percent energy-efficiency, according to Chris Boucher, the company's chief technology officer.

As part of a continuing effort to reduce electricity costs, Boucher installed smaller, modular UPS hardware that helped to reduce the energy cost by more than 20 percent per kilowatt hour. Cybertrails switched from traditional floor-based cooling to more efficient in-row chillers that counter the heat by being placed close to the source. Another power-saving strategy that Boucher recommends is to reduce the number of computers needed by placing more load on existing equipment through server virtualization software.

Big players help reduce energy consumption

Many of the largest information technology companies are jointly studying how to reduce data center energy consumption in a project known as The Green Grid. The first duties for participants including IBM, AMD, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems is to agree on benchmarks that can be used to directly compare hardware energy requirements, according to Roger Kipley, a senior technologist at Hewlett-Packard and Green Grid director.

Kipley says enabling businesses to compare the "performance per watt" of hardware before a purchase, will drive manufacturers' behavior in addressing energy efficiency. Server vendors who are judged on their overall capabilities will then work with suppliers to improve the efficiency of individual components, such as processors, routers, and disc drives, according to Kipley. New software tools will be developed that enable information technology departments to tune the servers' power consumption to match processing loads, Kipley says.

Tom Braddish, an IBM fellow and Green Grid board member, says data center hardware will be optimized to provide processing power on an as-needed or just-in-time basis. Since hardware will have enhanced capability to switch to a lower power state when not needed, businesses will need to consider how quickly equipment returns to operation, or the "mean time to re-power," Braddish says.

 At the urging of the U.S. Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency is studying how to reduce data center energy use and will produce a report in June of this year that outlines suggested actions and incentives for businesses.