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

RFID gained significant traction as a means of tracking assets, which data centers and their customers are required to do, in order to both meet government regulations and monitor the proprietary or private data the servers hold. In the years that followed, falling sensor costs and the standardization of wireless sensor networking have meant that companies can now easily and quickly deploy sensors that allow asset tracking, but also collect and transmit temperature and humidity data to a data center's building energy-management software.

Companies such as RF Code and Dust Networks market their sensor networks and energy efficiency programs to data centers. During a recent briefing, Richard Jenkins, RF Code's VP of marketing, described many of the success stories the company has had with data centers, including providing its sensor and data-collection services to CenturyLink, which operates more than 55 data centers throughout the United States and is one of the largest providers of co-located data centers.

An IBM Blade Center with two HS22 and twelve HS21 Blade servers installed (photo courtesy Bob Mical)
CenturyLink is performing "quite precise temperature and humidity tracking" using RF Code asset sensors," Jenkins explained. "And they're passing [the energy savings] along to customers." According to Jenkins, the company expects to achieve $15 million in energy savings across its data centers by 2018, with a return on investment of less than one year.

Indeed, there is money to be saved through tamping down on energy bills and even allowing server rooms to reach temperatures much higher than data center operators had previously thought were tenable. Many years of experimentation have shown that the servers can handle such temperatures without experiencing performance failures or overheating. Aside from adding sensors that can do double-duty for asset tracking and environmental monitoring, data centers are adding shields called blanking panels that close off empty slots inside server racks to make sure cooling air will move through the rack correctly.

Yet, Anthesis partner Josh Whitney, who led the research into the NRDC data center report, says that sensor systems have become relatively common these days, even among co-located data centers and many small and midsize facilities. The real problem—and opportunity—is that there is a lack of alignment in terms of incentives to lower power consumption. Oftentimes, he says, the data center pays the power bill and the client pays a flat rate for the data services. Therefore, the client has no incentive to ask that the data center consider its energy consumption—in fact, it might even stand in the way of the data center saving energy.

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