Energy costs mean tough decisions for datacentre owners

Power is a huge proportion of the cost of running a datacentre that the price of electricity is becoming a major factor in where to site them.

Power is now such a significant cost for datacentre owners that they are looking at taking radical steps to reduce the amount of money they spend powering and cooling servers.

Datacentres typically cost millions of pounds to build, but the energy costs associated with running them can be huge, according to IT analyst Andy Lawrence from the 451 Research Group.

"We looked at the 15 year cost of ownership and found that operational energy consumption came in at around 30 percent of the total cost of the infrastructure," said Lawrence at the Hosting and Cloud Transformation Summit on Tuesday. "This means energy efficiency initiatives can push down datacentre facility costs by millions of dollars."

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The effieicncy of datacentres is typically determined by their power usage effectiveness (PUE). A PUE of 2.0 means that for every watt of IT power, an additional watt is consumed to cool and distribute power to the IT equipment while a PUE closer to 1.0 means nearly all of the energy is used for computing. According to the Uptime Institute's 2012 Data Centre Survey, the global average PUE is between 1.8 and 1.89 (although Google has been able to get the average PUE across its datacentre empire down to 1.12).

Lawrence claimed that European datacentre owners able to cut their PUEs from 1.5 to 1.3 could save six million dollars over the lifetime of the datacentre as a result of using less energy to power and cool servers.

While datacentre owners are able to take steps themselves to lower their PUEs and ultimately the amount of energy they use, the price of the energy that comes into the datacentre is decided by utility companies.

The price utility companies charge for energy varies from country to country and this is forcing businesses to think about where they build their datacentres, according to Lawrence. He argued that the recent exploitation of shale gas reserves in some countries is driving down their energy costs and making them more datacentre friendly.

"If you look back at 2003, not only were energy prices lower but they were much more equal across the world," said Lawrence. "What we're seeing now is a divergence, between for example, US and Norway at the bottom and Germany at the top and Western Europe in between."

Generating revenue

Datacentres usually have on-site generators that can provide backup power in the event of a mains outage.

Some companies are starting to realise that they can sell unused electricity created from these generators into the national grid.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley said on Tuesday that it is just one of the many datacentre owners considering the idea.

"We've looked several times at taking the opportunity to use our plant to actually sell energy back to the grid," said Patrick Griffiths, Morgan Stanley's vice president of datacentre engineering, during a panel discussion into the energy, efficiency and economics of datacentres at the same event.

"As the systems become more sophisticated in terms of being able to synchronise with utilities and as the market has opened up to people selling energy back into the grid we identified some opportunities."

He said that there is strain on the national grid in winter when buildings need to be heated and summer when buildings need to be cooled.