Data centers are notoriously voracious consumers of company capital and operating expenses. A July 2008 report by McKinsey & Company and the Uptime Institute reports that the average data center now accounts for one-fourth of a company’s annual corporate IT budget.

Of course, one could reasonably argue that the infallible security, reliability and performance demands of a mission-critical data center warrant a “spare no expense” approach to managing operations. However, economic realities prevail, and data center managers are increasingly pressured to find ways to reign in costs. Historically, this industry-wide concern has mostly centered on reducing energy consumption and expense in terms of network equipment. But there are many other opportunities to shave costs in the data center, including staffing and procurement adjustments.

To get you thinking about cost-control possibilities beyond the network, I have outlined some of the most effective and least invasive strategies for saving money in your data center.

Infrastructure Improvements

One quick and easy way to reduce your power bill is to replace traditional steam humidifiers with ultrasonic cool mist humidifiers, which can improve energy efficiency by a ratio of 10 to 1. You’ll incur some capital expense but will recoup your operational savings relatively quickly - typically within two years. Ultrasonic cool mist humidification creates misty air using vibration instead of heat, thereby drawing less power and creating less cooling load.

A white roof is another opportunity to save energy with minimal capital expenditures or logistical interference. A “cool roof” reflects sunlight and decreases heat transfer into the building, reducing the load on your HVAC system. The cost? Far less than you might think. Internap recently installed a 20,000 square-foot white roof on our Santa Clara data center for an additional 5 cents per square foot. That’s a $1,000 incremental investment that will lower our cooling costs 2 to 3 percent over the life of the facility. That is money well spent.

In a typical data center, cooling accounts for about 40 percent of the electricity bill. If you have the opportunity to harness outside air for cooling, take it. Install an outside air economizer to exhaust hot air out of the building and draw cooler, ambient air in. Even if you have to further reduce the ambient air a few degrees to meet temperature requirements, you’ll use far less energy for cooling. It’s not always practical to retrofit an older facility with an outside air economizer, but it’s worth investigating. Also, some utility companies offer rate discounts for using this equipment, so look into that as well. Of course, if you have the capital, you can locate your next data center in an area with cool temperatures and a nice prevailing breeze. Side note: When using air economizers or free cooling, be sure to have your designer carefully plan and consider humidification or dehumidification requirements depending on the climate.

In-Sourcing Instead of Outsourcing

Here’s a strategy that surprises a lot of data center managers I talk to: We’ve started staffing our facilities with full-time, in-house mechanical/electrical personnel. This not only saves us money, but also time, which is even more valuable. Now, instead of having to call in a service company to replace a part, our staff person can do it in a fraction of the time. In an around-the-clock environment, this speed of service is critical -- and we don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a service call. When a fan belt broke in one of our New York data centers at night over a holiday weekend, we were able to replace it for $15. Compare that to holiday rates for a service call.  

Going the “in-house” route has paid off handsomely for us. In one market, to maintain one mechanical/electrical staff position costs us six figures per year in salary and overhead. We always have a back-up person on call as well. In the first year, this in-house staff position saved us more than twice the salary expense in service calls. Additionally, the staff person interacts with our equipment on a daily basis and can recommend ways to increase efficiency across the facility. In the event of more major repairs that require outside service, our in-house resource reduces diagnosis time on the front end.  

Renaissance Men and Women

“Multitaskers” are an asset to your organization. Train-up your data center personnel to take on additional responsibilities beyond their usual area of expertise. Heighten their sense of awareness in this complex ecosystem so that, for instance, they can walk past an air conditioning unit and identify an odd smell or sound that signals potential trouble. There’s a lot of down time in a data center. Find ways to occupy it.

Vendor Relations

No matter how much you like your vendors, it pays to continually explore your options. We like to get three bids before starting any vendor relationship. Moreover, we’ve found that vendor rates can inch up over time, so it’s important to constantly do your homework. A vendor may lowball a price initially to get the business, and then slowly raise the price over subsequent orders so you’re actually paying more than what a competitor would charge. Don’t be afraid to routinely request bids from existing vendors. Most of them will appreciate the opportunity to win your business -- especially if they can gain some insight into what the competition is offering.

Where possible, purchase equipment and supplies in bulk from one source that can ship to all of your locations. You’ll benefit from volume pricing. We buy cabinets and racks for our IT equipment in lots of 100 for a savings of 25-30 percent over individual purchases.

Keep in mind that the local power company is one of your chief vendors, and there’s an opportunity to gain some leverage with them as well. As a huge consumer of electricity, your facility is a great candidate for wholesale pricing. If you can’t negotiate directly with the utility, seek the services of a power broker; this is their area of expertise and they can save you some real money. Also, check with your utility provider about programs providing discounted rates for lowering some of your usage during peak hours. For example, one of our data centers saved $70,000 over the course of one year by altering its procedures for generator testing. As part of its regular generator preventative maintenance and exercise program, the data center shifted the facility to generator power during periods of peak energy demand on the utility. Not only does this reduce the number of kilowatt-hours at peak demand, but also, because the data center worked with the utility, the cost savings were even greater. Take advantage of all programs available to you, and get creative like this company did.

Robust Monitoring

One cost-saving practice may seem obvious but is often overlooked: Monitor your systems on a global basis. A robust monitoring system provides comprehensive details that can help you prevent issues and outages. For example,– if one particular CRAC unit seems to run constantly, see if it’s an isolated or systematic problem. Monitoring also gives you insight that can lead to improved efficiency, perhaps by virtualizing a server that only spools up a couple of times each day to make it do double-duty. The best approach is to tie a robust monitoring system into a building management control system that sheds light on humidity levels, server rack security and more. You’ll have one consolidated report that serves as your preventive maintenance playbook while reducing your time spent walking the floor.

Regulation on the Radar

You have to stay abreast of proposed regulations that can affect your operation. You don’t have to become a political junkie, but you should take the time to research and understand potential new requirements so you can anticipate future needs and prepare accordingly. The greenhouse gas legislation recently in review is a great example. The proposed rules for reducing carbon emissions will affect all of us in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. You might be prepared to monitor your energy usage and purchase energy-efficient equipment, but are you prepared to disclose the physical and financial risks of climate change on your organization if increased storms and flooding occur? Can you anticipate how cap and trade legislation will impact not only the price you pay for electricity, but also the price for other goods and services critical to your operation? The effects of legislation can be far reaching, and it may be necessary to consult experts who can help you develop a solid plan and budget.

Creative Thinking

I’ve covered some of the most effective cost-reduction strategies implemented by data centers, but the best resource is your own brainpower. Think creatively about ways you can re-engineer your facility – both equipment and people – to yield the most value from your resources. Share your ideas and spread the wealth of knowledge throughout the industry. And don’t be siloed in your thinking: Solicit input from colleagues in purchasing, facilities management and other areas outside of your data center. Approach cost containment as a holistic exercise, and you’ll be surprised at what you come up with.

--by Mike Frank

This story originally ran in Information Management, a sister publication of Health Data Management.

Michael Frank is VP of data center services for Internap and leads Internap’s colocation product management and business development teams. He has spent his entire Internap career dedicated to data center services, and at different times he has lead Internap’s colocation business unit, managed the data center operations team and developed the managed hosting product line. Prior to joining Internap, he held vendor management and product development roles at BellSouth in Atlanta.


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