Intelligence + energy + monitoring = efficient data centers

Smart energy management solutions are popping up in places like BT, all in the name of efficiency.

Several years back, I had the opportunity to cover a startup that had developed a system for monitoring and managing energy consumption using Zigbee – a communication standard for active 2.4 MHz, low-power wireless devices —and “swarm intelligence” – a mechanism based on the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems (think of the way bees work independently toward the shared goal of building a hive and making honey).

The company, Regen Energy, is based in Toronto and is selling its solution to midsize and large facilities, such as multi-unit residential structures, office buildings, hotels, warehouses and shopping malls. Regen Energy’s EnviroGrid system comprides smart controllers embedded with sensors that monitor energy consumption, and microchips encoded with unique identification numbers. The controllers share their sensor data and IDs with each other via the ZigBee standard for creating mesh networks. Each controller determines when to regulate an electrical load, such as an HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system, by evaluating its own data and the information from nearby controllers. EnviroGrid analyzes the collective data, then smooths out the combined electrical demand. The goal is to reduce energy consumption yet still ensure enough energy to keep things like heating, ventilation and air conditioning optimally configured and running smoothly.

I found the whole process fascinating, and know that similar, smart energy management solutions continue to make their way into the market. In fact, earlier this month, BT announced that it is rolling out a smart energy management and control system across thousands of its offices, telephone exchanges and data centers – with the expectation that the U.K. telecom company will cut as much as £13 million a year, or $20.7 million from its energy bills. The company also says it expects to reduce its carbon footprint by 5 percent, a reduction equivalent to the annual emissions from electricity supplied to 23,000 houses.

BT doesn’t say which products it will be using, nor does it provide many details on how they will work. The description given – that the smart meters will wirelessly monitor energy consumption and environment conditions sounds as if there will be sensors, mesh networking and RF communications. There’s also a central system that will cull all the data from the smart meters as well as from invoices and building energy management and control systems.

The company does say it is installing more than 22,000 smart energy meters and over 1500 building energy management systems – as well as an advanced control network over broadband – to monitor and control energy consumption, and that the initiative leverages smart meters, machine to machine communications, forecasting and reporting functions overlaid by a software tool for driving accurate billing and driving out waste energy consumption. Already underway, the systems are being rolled out to more than 110 buildings a month.

Monitoring energy usage is critical for any organization that ones to reduce electricity use, and clearly that’s a top goal of data center managers. The chief metric for data centers, as many of you know, is Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), which compares the total electricity use of the data center facility with the electricity that ends up to the IT load. The closer the PUE is to 1.0, the more efficient the data center is.

I’ve read that a typical place to begin monitoring energy usage is at the UPS, which may not be the best spot since server racks and individual servers (and the more detailed power information they all contain) sit downstream of UPSes. Of course, sensors tracking such data as temperature, humidity and other information not only about the server racks but also about the environment, can be used to effectively monitor and manage power usage.

All the various data points – and you can expect gazillions of them in large data centers where there are hundreds of racks of servers – can make for very complex monitoring. The industry is tackling this through what’s called Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM). DCIM combines software, hardware and sensors to enable a common, real-time monitoring and management platform for all interdependent systems across IT and facility infrastructures.

Just this week, iTRACS Corporation, Inc., and Intel announced they are working together on a solution that integrates Intel Data Center Manager software suite with iTRACS Converged Physical Infrastructure Management (CPIM) and leverages the collection, management, and analysis of power, temperature, and environmental information at the device level (CPU).

The two companies say this will combine iTRACS' interactive 3D visualization, a single-pane view of the IT environment and "What If?" analysis capabilities with Intel's granular CPU data collection and aggregation, monitoring, trending, and analysis for a much more complete metric than PUE when monitoring and managing a data center's power usage.

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