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Sustainable IT: Earth Rangers LEEDs the way

Earth Rangers is a non-profit organization that teaches hundreds of thousands of children through school and online programs about what they can do to protect the environment. For this reason, it’s important to them that their headquarters have as little impact as possible, which is why they’ve built the Earth Rangers Centre in Woodbridge, Ontario, to a LEED Gold standard. It is now one of the most energy-efficient facilities in Canada, using 79 per cent less energy than similar buildings its size. Recently, they decided to take a step further by upgrading their IT systems with a virtualized environment. Doing so has meant saving about 90 per cent on data centre space and 90 per cent on IT energy use costs.


August 14, 2009
By Robert Colman

Earth Rangers has a website called earthrangers.com, which is an educational site for children. “They have a number of edugames that are designed to be fun and interesting for children but also teach them about the environment and ways to reduce energy consumption at the same time,” says Kevin Smith, Enterprise Solutions Brand Manager for Dell Canada. “Running a virtual environment can consume a lot of hardware, which in itself can consume a lot of energy, so they focused on looking for the most energy efficient hardware and finding the right products to showcase in their green data centre.”

The technology solution that they’re using is a product called a PowerEdge M1000e — a blade server chassis designed to be more energy efficient than standard rack-mounted servers.

“It’s the most energy efficient blade-mounted chassis on the market today, and it’s one of the key things that reduces energy consumption,” says Smith. “We introduced that product in February of last year. Earth Rangers were one of the early adopters. And they’ve also been going through the process of testing a couple of additional blade servers that we’ve launched for that chassis, which we officially launched at the end of March this year.”

Server virtualization is a huge opportunity for organizations today. In general, when you compare blade servers to rack servers, they are anywhere from 10-20 per cent more efficient.

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“The reason for that is that you have a shared infrastructure,” explains Smith. “When you look at a server, you can break it down into a number of components that consume energy — processors are one, memory is another, but fans and power supply and other moving parts also consumer electricity. By taking a group of servers and putting them into a blade chassis, what you are really doing is taking the fans and power supply and you’re sharing them, and that reduces how much energy is consumed by the infrastructure.”

But the blade environment comes with its own challenges, of course. With so many servers in such a small space, there are potential power challenges.

“One of the goals we had in the Earth Rangers Centre was to reduce energy consumption,” says Smith. “We did that by, for instance, designing the chassis to have good space for airflow. There are high efficiency fans in the chassis itself, which are low flow — meaning they’ve been engineered to pull more airflow at lower spin speeds. There is also a feature that will automatically turn power supplies off if there’s low load to the chassis – kind of like how some newer cars shut down pistons in idle traffic to reduce gas consumption.”

Smith describes a “stepping stone” path his company shares with customers on how to reduce data centre energy consumption.

“You do that by breaking down what’s consuming energy in the data centre,” he explains. “The infrastructure side (the servers) would generally account for about 40 per cent of electricity consumption. Power and cooling would account for 60 per cent, but the interesting thing is that if you make the server side more energy efficient first, it actually has a greater impact on overall data centre energy reduction because there’s a cascading effect. If servers are using less energy, then you need less electricity to power the servers and you need less electricity to cool them afterwards.

“The way we make a data centre energy efficient is that we first make the servers as energy efficient as possible,” he continues. “Secondly, we look for consolidation opportunities. Virtualization is a key opportunity. Another one is simply refreshing technology on new hardware. As an example, a couple of the servers that Earth Rangers is testing right now are based on the new Intel Nahalon 5500 series processors. They have a tremendous performance gain over their prior generation, and some of the benchmarks that we’re actually seeing is that if you compare a server’s performance to the server from four years ago that was running single core processors, they’re almost nine times as fast. Even with virtualizing, if you imagine a server farm as an engine of computing capacity, and let’s say you needed 100 servers to run a web farm, you now may need only 10. That in itself reduces a tremendous amount of energy consumption, space, cooling — so there’s actual dollar cost saving benefits just by looking at refreshing hardware just a little quicker than you might think. There’s no telling where the technology will take us. In the last few chip changes we’ve actually been exceeding Moore’s law.”

Smith notices that his customers are much more sophisticated today in their understanding of the power of virtualization, but he also sees that companies, when they look at replacing server infrastructure, still look at it as a one to one replacement — they think if they’ve got 100 servers today they’ll need 100 servers tomorrow. That just isn’t the case.

“If they combine virtualization and increased capacity, they can decrease their data centre size tremendously,” Smith insists. “Getting clients to understand that is part of our job.”

Return on investment is an important consideration for any company. While Smith will often do a basic back-of-napkin calculation for clients initially, there are now other options as well. For instance, Dell has an ROI tool on its website — dell.ca/calc — that, when you plug in a few assumptions, can give clients an idea of what sort of efficiencies they can get from a virtualized environment. Of course, a company like Dell will come in and do a full assessment of a company’s equipment and give them a more accurate calculation, but the online tool establishes a good starting point.

Data centres can be energy hogs. Virtualization and other concepts like cloud computing can make a big difference in a company’s operations budget. Before adding more servers, or building a new server room, consider what newer technologies can do to make your business more efficient and effective.