Friday, November 16, 2007

Is everyone in?

I am back in Amsterdam after spending the first part of the week with the VNUG and FinTUG user groups. More on this will follow next week. But I really do enjoy Amsterdam and spent a couple of evenings at the Five Flies restaurant – it is a well known establishment that I really enjoy, and have been dining there for many years.

The place is decorated with many pictures of the windmills, no surprise! As I was arriving to Amsterdam, I was once again captivated by the number and variety of windmills which I could see from the plane this time as I descended into the airport. I could clearly see examples of the old, traditional style, Dutch windmills as well as a lot of the new, modern, power-generating, kind.

While windmills first surfaced in what today is Iran, and then showed up again on some Greek islands, I think most of us associate windmills with the Northern part of France, some of the coast of England, and the Netherlands – as these were places where the strength and frequency of the wind made them ideal sources of power.

While most of the windmills started out as mills, many of the Dutch variety were adapted for drainage purposes and they were very effective at draining large areas of land. Sometimes stacked three and four deep, working in unison, they could pump water out from most of the threatened areas across the Netherlands. With the seasonal high tides that the country experienced recently that came just as a serious storm headed out of the North Sea, we were reminded once again of the general predicament that comes to a country situated mostly below sea-level!

As I continue to catch up on my reading this past week, I picked up a special “The Business of Green” feature insert in the International Herald Tribune (November 8th). While I was still thinking about the Dutch windmills, I came across a story “The hidden cost of those billions of mouse clicks” that noted:

“Google, meanwhile, plans to put one of its server farms in farm country – in Council Bluffs, Iowa: a good location for windmills, the company said.”

And it came to me – the corporate recognition of the need for green data centers was catching on. Energy efficiency and conservation, as well as really minimizing the overall environmental impact, were beginning to get the attention of many forward-thinking executives. As one web site I read recently stated so well - the combination of fear, guilt, and greed - were all beginning to hit home. Executives were beginning to see the corporate sense in paying attention to this growing business requirement and major social issue.

I had the good fortune to catch up with a colleague of mine Stephen Guendert. We work together as volunteers on another user group board, where Stephen has oversight of IT. Quite by chance I walked by Stephen and his wife Melinda waiting for a hotel room at the same hotel I was staying in. So we went to dinner at the Five Flies restaurant. The restaurant is made up of a combination of specialty, or theme, rooms and we were seated in the room pictured above – the glass room. And as we walked back to the hotel, we talked about the greening of the data center.

For some time now, we know that manufacturers are paying attention to the server and are looking at reducing the power needed to support today’s multi-core chips as well as at the cooling that these chips need. In the same “Business of Green” article, the author reported on how HP has said that “by 2010, it will have improved the efficiency of some of its servers by 50% over (equivalent) 2005 models”. As a rule of thumb, inside today’s data centers 60% of the power is consumed by the servers, 20% by the network, and 20% by storage.

HP plans to move to a new, bladed architecture, and this has a lot to do with improving energy efficiency and conservation. Stephen and I then began to talk about storage, as Stephen has a “day job” with Brocade, and this is of interest to him and to his company. Yes, a lot of work is being done with servers, but storage was also facing some major issues. If servers do improve by 50% by 2010, Stephen suggested, this will just focus the spotlight back onto storage. “We can’t just keep spinning disks faster”, he noted. “Perhaps we will even see the return of solid state drives or even the introduction of some variation of flash memory storage”!

For years, whenever I think of the Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” I always recall the scene where the astronaut Dave has to shut down the computer HAL. As the film follows the sequence, we see a whole array of futuristic cards being ejected from a backplane, of one kind or another, and it was only recently that I recognized that HAL was made up nothing other than giant flash memory cards! Perhaps not – but clearly, someone back in 1968 was already thinking that perhaps taking disk drives into space wasn’t all that cool. So perhaps we will see a return to some form of solid state storage.

Stephen then told me about the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) and about one of their key pieces of work, the Green Storage Initiative (GSI). HP, IBM, Hitachi, EMC, Brocade, among others, are all participants in this initiative and are taking the need to conserve energy very seriously.

As we talked, I was also reminded of a recent email exchange I had with Anton Lessing, an ITUG Director. We had been discussing the attributes of good architects. One point Anton brought up was that good architects needs to “deliver systems Faster, Cheaper and Better (FCB) to the market … (it) is what will make sure that a company survives and has an edge on the opposition in the IT environment”. At the time, I could see his point. But can we continue to do this without consideration of other factors? And does this override all other considerations?

For years the goals of IT execs have been to upgrade to faster processors, cluster them for reliability, and to throw enormous amounts of memory into the mix. Often being pursued with little to no dialogue with the facilities manager, who ended up having to redesign and re-equip rooms never designed for the racks and racks of servers now arriving at their loading docks.

We may not all have the luxury of building a new data center, as the folks at Google will be doing. We may never have the opportunity to consider proactively using alternative energy sources either. But we absolutely have to engage in a closer dialogue with those responsible for planning and operating our facilities. We have to take a lot more seriously our energy usage, and we need to understand potential technology trade-offs. Perhaps we need to experiment a little more and try different options – we just can’t keep on pulling more and more power off the grid.

While we were enjoying our dinner at the Five Flies, I took a good look around the building. Built back in the early to middle 17th Century, it had seen a lot of changes. It had survived some serious flooding and it had seen the country’s leaders make enormous commitments to stabilizing the land and keeping the water out. The history of windmills was captured in many of the paintings on display. Windmills had made an enormous contribution to stabilizing the country and they had saved tens of thousands of lives through the centuries. Maybe they will again play an important part in our energy future.

One video-clip caught my attention recently. It was from the group Gorillaz and the song was called “Feel Good, Inc”. The video-clip included a sequence where an airborne chunk of land, with just a ships wheel and a windmill on it, floats by, accompanied by the words from the chorus:

“Windmill, windmill, for the land
Turn forever hand in hand
Is everyone in?”

And I was reminded once again that our issues with energy and the data center are eventually going to require us all to rethink the way we do thing. We really do need to be cognizant of our energy requirements and begin to pay more attention to energy efficiency and conservation, and to the impact we are making on our environment. And I would rather be doing it now, and for the right reasons, then after a whole new round of legislation is handed down. Because we all know, they wont get it right either! Is everyone in?


Margo Holen said...

and I am sure that even Al Gore would agree that sometimes the "green efforts" feel like Don Quixote's adventures...

Anonymous said...

It is certainly trendy in the marketplace to be seen to be "green". But more importantly power savings are bringing cost savings which all corporates want to see.

There is anecdotal evidence that due to power constraints in some areas of the US, companies have been forced to build or move their data centres to different states.

Have also seen where companies have actually replaced DASD with newer models as they consume less power and therefore freed up that power for more CPU!

Anonymous said...

As we all strive to limit our utilisation of resources of our planet and the fact that we need to conserve energy resources and use energy in a environmental friendly fashion there are some delimmas we are faced with. If your datacenter have been build 25 years or longer ago when you were running the massive System 370's or even Sperry Univac or the likes then right now you have two problems. One the airconditioning is most likely enough to supply cold area to the entire suburb you are in and when they start up all the lights in the area dimm. However, to replace these dinosaurs cost a considerable amount of money and we are about to embark on this road. With the pressure on reducing processing cost it becomes an interesting sum to calculate and the decision then needs to be made on the cost to maintain versus the cost of installing new equipment and the reduced cost of maintenance. It becomes a game of numbers. Isnt that sad, to save our planet is really a game of numbers that are being played.......