Allstate's green data center shrinks through 'aggressive virtualization'

Data center managers become building planners as they look for ways to fit more processing and storage into smaller spaces.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Some leading companies are stepping up to the plate to address issues with data center efficiency. But there's more involved than simply scaling back power consumption. There's a lot of new thinking now going on behind data center design and operations management that blends smart technology and smart energy management.

Allstate Insurance Co. for one, just opened a green data center in Rochelle, Ill., incorporating a range of best practices and state-of-the-art technology aimed at saving energy and employing renewable resources. Details are published in an article I wrote for latest edition of Insurance Networking News, for which I had the chance to speak with Anthony Abbattista, VP of technology solutions for Allstate, who has been putting a lot of thought into the design and function of the center over the past few years.

As the new center gears up and take on new workloads, Allstate is retiring two older data centers, planned for closure sometime in June. At the same time, the new data center ended up being only a third the original size planned.

"When we started this, the design for this particular facility was three times the size and three times the floorspace of what we ultimately built," Abbattista relates. "By really getting aggressive about our assumptions about how we were going to handle growth through virtualization, thin-provisioning disk and shared infrastructure, that's how we saw our way through a much smaller footprint."

As Abbattista explained, Allstate first started planning with greater systems efficiency in mind, but soon recognized that the greener they could make things, the better. “We started off saying, we want to be efficient, and build a good building, and all that good stuff,” Abbattista said. “But the thing that quickly became clear is the size of mechanical and electrical plant really is sort of a driving cost and factor. That got us interested in how do you build a better building, how do you build a smaller building, how do you do something about energy and kilowatts, which is the largest operating cost in the data center? That's how we got started on this path—we started thinking, let's build a LEED-certified building.”

LEED, or Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design, is the recognized certification in green building development.

From a systems perspective, Abbattista pursued a policy of what he calls “aggressive virtualization,” which dramatically cut the amount of servers and storage that needed to be maintained to support present and future Allstate operations. Essentially, the new data center support Allstate's private cloud. "We had  done work in virtualization, particularly in the Windows server platform, and done work in computing farms, where we had general-purpose shared infrastructure, where we got like-minded functions running together."

In terms of energy efficiency, the new data center employs some smart techniques, such as sucking in cool air on cool days for server cooling, and channeling heat from the servers to warm working spaces in winter. Abbattista said it's too soon to tell how much energy is being saved, since the center opened less than a year ago. However, so far, so good—each watt of computing power is consuming about 1.3 watts of cooling capacity versus the standard two watts traditionally consumed.

As shown in a video of the site, the windows are huge—floor-to-ceiling, to let natural light in and save lighting costs. Window louvers are adjusted to meet the optimum times and days when sunlight hits the building. The roof has a white reflective surface that helps deflect heat and light and sun in the summer months. As the narrator explains in the video tour, “We evaluate all of our hardware to make sure its the most energy efficient available. We look at everything from the temperature and the volume of the cold air coming up from the floor, to the amount of power that every piece of equipment consumers.”

At the beginning of the year, IBM Corp. opened up a new pavilion at Epcot Center, which focuses on its “SmarterPlanet” initiatives—green, collaborative and intelligent technologies. At the center of the Epcot exhibit is its green data center, based on the latest energy-efficient technologies and IBM's Scalable Modular Data Center concept. The green data center also features a cloud computing demonstration. And, in the true spirit of green, IBM will donate unused computing resources to the World Community Grid, which allocates thousands of computers from around the world to accelerate medical, humanitarian and environmental research.

In Allstate's case, Abbattista says says each of the new adaptations in the green data center required a hard cost-benefit analysis to determine if there would be payback within at least 20 years.

In terms of technologies inside, Abbattista says most of the data center is based on Windows and Unix servers running on virtualized platforms. “In a lot of data centers without virtualization, you’re eating up both floor space and kilowatt-hours with largely underutilized gear,” he says. Plus, the Allstate team sought to tackle another space hog—storage systems—by employing a multi-tier strategy to “thin provision” gigabytes, which is essentially a form of just-in-time storage, versus allocating blocks of storage up front for systems or business units.

One area where power consumption may actually increase is as a result of the move from physical tape to virtual tape systems. That's because the robotics and automation required for tape loading "were really only running when they were doing something on demand. If you think about it, a tape doesn't consume any eneregy when its at rest. We probably traded up and took more energy to put some of this on spinning media. By doing it with thre right form factor, it was a trade between a little bit of energy and maintenance costs and efficiency."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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