Building an Energy-Efficient Data Center Using Virtualization Technology

by | Nov 19, 2009

earthrangersElectrical power usage has always been a large and increasing cost of operating a data center.

Over the last decade, as applications have grown more sophisticated and servers more powerful, digital data has grown at an exponential rate and the deployment of storage systems has proliferated. Add to this the wired and wireless networks connecting millions of users to these systems, and the stage is set for a microcosm of the world’s energy crisis in every data center.

Fortunately, innovation in servers, storage, and networking technology – especially server and storage virtualization – have made possible an entirely new way of designing energy-efficient data centers while accommodating the need for scaling performance and capacity.

At Earth Rangers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children about environmental issues, we had the opportunity to research and implement the latest virtualization technologies from the ground up in our new data center for our Earth Rangers Centre (ERC), a building with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold designation. The ERC, located in Woodbridge, Ontario, uses 79 percent less energy than a similar 60,000-square-foot building.

The challenge was to build a data center that would contribute to the ERC’s overall energy efficiency without sacrificing the leading-edge performance our growing organization requires. We needed to house it in a small, 100-square-foot space, and we wanted it to be a showcase of the latest in green IT technology.

The first thing we settled on was a virtual server infrastructure, which eliminated 90 percent of the hardware a conventional server deployment would require, and this became the central decision that drove much of the architecture of the data center. Next, we chose power-efficient RAM-intensive blade servers to host the virtual servers, ending up with three physical blade servers running 62 virtual servers – with room for more as our needs grow.

The virtual server infrastructure, in turn, drove storage and data protection decisions. For storage, we chose one of the new generation of virtualized storage arrays – one with a full 10 terabytes of raw storage capacity – that could serve up virtual disks of any size as needed for each of my virtual servers. There is plenty of head room on this array; when more capacity is  needed, another array is added and it will expand the virtual pool of available storage, mirroring the flexibility of the virtual servers.

A deployment of this size using conventional servers and storage would require a data center 10 times the size. By creating a virtualized environment on the energy-efficient blades, we have saved nearly 85 percent of the energy costs compared with a non-virtualized environment.

For data protection, a disk-based backup system eliminates the need for tape-based backup and allows me to restore lost or corrupted files on a very granular level in minutes. There is an indirect positive impact on the environment with this system, since we are no longer burning fossil fuel to truck copies of our data on tape to a remote location for safe keeping. We are currently using a continuous data protection solution and site-to-site disaster recovery.

We completed the initial construction of the data center in December 2008, and as the data center grew since then, energy consumption has only doubled, even though performance has increased more than tenfold. Since the data center is embedded in an extraordinarily energy efficient building, the electricity it consumes for computing (nearly 100 kWh per day) is offset by the energy generated from the ERC’s 28 kW photovoltaic array, and the heat generated by the IT equipment will be used to warm the building and offset our heating costs in the near future. To complete the efficient use of electricity, we deployed an Ethernet routing switch enabled with power-over-Ethernet technology to facilitate the transfer of electrical power and data across the infrastructure.

Virtualization has not only saved space and energy in the data center, but with the use of virtual desktop technology and thin clients, we have reduced the need for expensive, energy-intensive desktops. Now the majority of storage and processing power is centrally located in and distributed from the data center. Not only does this save energy, but it facilitates the distribution of new software and upgrades to all staff from a central location.

The virtualized architecture of the data center saves more than 111,000 kilowatt hours a year, or the equivalent of more than 26 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. In addition to the efficiency of the data center itself, a virtual private network (VPN) allows more than half of Earth Rangers’ staff to work from home, reducing pollution caused by driving to work every day; it is estimated that our VPN capabilities can help eliminate more than 23 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Everything that Earth Rangers deployed in its data center is proven green technology that any organization can put to good use today. The ERC data center is living proof that the massive energy-hogging data centers of the past are not necessary for any organization to have the performance and capacity it requires, and we urge everyone to investigate how to migrate to a more energy-efficient data center with virtualization technology and other sustainability practices.

Rob DiStefano is IT systems manager for Earth Rangers, a charitable organization with a mission to inspire kids with a lasting passion to build a green future. Fadi Albatal is the vice president of product marketing at FalconStor Software, which assisted in the upgrade.

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