Strategy & Operations » Governance » Green datacentres are good, but big capex projects are not

Green datacentres are good, but big capex projects are not

Overhauling datacentres benefits the bottom line - but it comes at a cost

The winds of change are blowing through the world of the corporate datacentre. These facilities are commonly imagined to be huge air-conditioned, hangar-esque halls filled with big, scary devices that bear a striking resemblance to industrial fridges.

While this preconception owes much to Hollywood’s portrayal of computing, the fact is that the perception of huge kit-crammed halls is not too far wide of reality for large businesses. All but the smallest businesses must maintain a central facility where their servers are located.

However, the spiralling cost of energy is forcing companies to take a hard look at these datacentres and, in most cases, they don’t like what they see. Over recent years, standard practice has been to manage the power and cooling of datacentres by physically spreading out devices over as wide an area as possible of cooled and ventilated office space. But as the cost of office space has soared in most main commercial centres, this approach has become increasingly untenable.

As more and more computer power is needed every day, organisations are forced to stack server racks closer together. As aresult they ramp up the need for electricity, not only in order to power, but also to cool the devices.

This means the issue of datacentre power consumption has been moving relentlessly up the corporate food chain. It is now heading towards FDs who are waking up to the sobering fact that the high energy costs for IT today are but a fraction of what the future cost will be at projected growth rates. Technology research outfit Gartner estimates that, at current pricing, the operating expense (that is, energy) to support a com-modity Intel server will exceed the cost of the server itself within three years.

Given this trend, it is likely that the operating costs of servers could easily equal their capital costs within the first few years, putting severe strain on IT departments to fully utilise the equipment they have. But – and this is a very big but – these servers are often running at around 12 percent of their capacity, while the racks on which they sit are half empty. And this is where technologies that have been highlighted in this column in the past, such as virtualisation, come into play. With virtualisation, companies can maximise the work done by servers by dividing them into multiple logical machines, each of which is running its own operating system and applications.


But the use of individual technologies such as virtualisation is only the first step. It is time to fundamentally rethink and redesign our corporate datacentres. Redesigning datacentre facilities to become lean and mean involves boosting efficient cooling features, such as row-and-rack-cooling, to support the new higher-density equipment placements. And simple steps such as keeping these facilities as small and dense as possible can reduce the long-term operating expenses by 10 to 30 percent, Gartner estimates.

In this age of financial austerity, when big capital projects must have clear justification, you need to have your story straight. However, the return on investment for green projects such as datacentre optimisation can be signi-ficant.

A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report found that, of the 378 large and medium-sized companies across 61 countries that it asked – all of which have sustainability programmes – 61 percent say the benefits of such investment clearly outweigh the upfront cost. This rose to 72 percent among the largest companies. One respondent with a long-running sustainability programme reported a payback of $1.50 to $2 for every $1 spent.

Datacentre optimisation is good business that allows us to polish our environmental haloes while simultaneously boosting the bottom line. 

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