The IoT Can Improve Data Center Efficiency—If Customers Don't Stand in the Way

Sensors inside data centers can work double-duty, tracking assets and monitoring the environment to guide energy-savings programs. But making a real dent in energy usage requires commitment from data centers and their customers.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Nov 14, 2014

Networking giant Cisco recently published its annual Global Cloud Index, in which it predicts annual data center traffic will triple, reaching 8.6 zettabytes by 2018 (a single zettabyte equals a trillion gigabytes). Certainly, many of those bytes will be linked in various ways to the Internet of Things, and as they move between data centers and users, all those bytes will consume a massive number of electrons.

Research conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council and consultancy Anthesis found that in 2013, data centers across the United States consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—or the equivalent annual output of 34 large coal-fired power plants.

If you've seen news stories related to data centers and energy in the past few years, they've probably been associated with one of a handful of major tech companies, such as Apple, Facebook, Google or eBay, that have invested huge amounts of money into their data farms, powering them with renewable-energy infrastructure. But these power users are the outliers. Small or midsize data centers, which often operate a single facility for their own needs, consume nearly half of all the electricity expended by data centers in the United States, while multi-tenant (or co-located) data centers consume 19 percent, according to the NRDC report.

Sadly, much of that energy is wasted. The study found that at many data centers, servers are constantly powered despite only occasionally performing any work, while a third of servers remain completely inactive but are still plugged in, drawing power for no reason. These are issues that can be resolved through the better utilization of servers, such as through virtualization—a process by which software is used to "virtualize" operating systems or applications running on multiple underutilized servers, and to have them running on fewer physical servers, thereby saving energy, space and management costs.

But another major energy sink is the air conditioning used for cooling the server banks, which generate significant heat. A number of years ago, savvy data center operators began to realize that this was an area in which they could make substantial cuts to energy usage, and they began wiring their data centers with multiple temperature sensors, which provided them with a real-time heat map of the facility (or, more likely, a cold map, given the propensity to just crank up the AC to prevent servers from experiencing stress).

Wiring sensors is a slow and costly prospect that gives little flexibility in terms of repositioning sensors as a data center's layout changes. In 2008, RFID Journal reported on Cisco using active (battery-powered) RFID tags to track its IT assets within data centers. The following year, it published an article about Microsoft using temperature sensors to monitor hot and cold spots within its data centers around the world.

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