Challenges emerge for making Europe’s data centers more efficient

Europe’s policy makers face a dilemma. They have to collectively cut energy consumption across the continent by 2020, yet the various industries that need to reduce wasteful consumption significantly, from IT to transportation, aren’t doing enough. Part of the challenge includes figuring out the best ways to build and run data centers.

“I don’t want to say this, but … we are panicking a bit,” said Colette Maloney, head of European Commission’s smart cities and sustainability unit, during the Green Grid Forum in Santa Clara, Calif., on Wednesday. “We are way off target.” The commission aims to see its member countries cut their energy use by 20 percent — compared to the 2005 levels — by 2020, and the European Union has only hit a 13 percent reduction.

To meet its 2020 target, the commission is counting on the information and communication technology industry to do its part, and is focusing attention on data centers in particular, given that data centers account for about 25 to 30 percent of the energy use by the IT industry, Maloney said.

Structure Europe 2012 Paul Miller Cloud of Data Tate Cantrell Verne Global Eirikur Hrafnsson GreenQloud
CTO, Verne Global, Tate Cantrell and Eirikur Hrafnsson, Founder GreenQloud at Structure Europe 2012

Not only that, the number of data centers will likely mushroom if the idea of “smart cities” becomes a reality. The term is really about the use of technology to help people use and manage resources – from water and power to transportation and communication systems – much more efficiently (see  this GigaOm Pro report, subscription required, called “Key technologies for the future of the smart city”). Using sensors to collect data and computers to analyze and disseminate them will be a big part of running a smart city, and that will require the construction of more data centers.

Figuring out how to measure and analyze energy savings and what data is acceptable to use for those calculations are among the big challenges for making data centers more efficient, Maloney said. And getting at least the majority of the IT industry to agree to a set of methods and data won’t be easy. The commission has been working with many companies and trade associations, but they haven’t reached a happy compromise yet. Implementing those standards once they are set will pose a new challenge, she noted.

Markley data center

Some of the standard-setting industry organizations are looking to adopt rules for promoting energy savings. The Green Grid, an IT industry association, came up with PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) to gauge the energy efficiency of data centers. Companies such as Google have promoted the use of PUE, which has some notable limitations.­­ EBay has a new metric for the MPG of a data center, too.

Maloney said PUE is useful, but the commission is looking at other metrics as well, especially since it wants to promote new business opportunities while achieving its energy savings target. Some of the opportunities it hopes to promote will involve making and selling efficient equipment and related services, but what constitutes green products and services has yet to be clearly defined.

In the mean time, the commission is funding research projects, such as Fit4Green and All4Green, that will come up with new ways to run data centers more efficiently. Later this year, the commission plans to call for research proposals on building and running green data centers in smart cities, Maloney said.