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Paint Your Data Center Green: An Interview with Douglas Alger

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In an interview with Linda Leung, Douglas Alger explains what it takes for businesses to green their data centers, how Cisco is eating its own green dog food, and how his former career as a journalist has helped him in his career at Cisco.
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It's easy to do your bit to green up your life. From taking public transportation to work, to switching off your computer every night, to recycling and composting, every little counts. And every little bit counts a lot more when you're involved in greening data centers. By being smart with data center equipment layout and design and using energy-efficient devices, green data centers can save hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars depending on the size of the facilities. Douglas Alger, author of Grow a Greener Data Center, and Build the Best Data Center Facility for Your Business says Cisco's savings due to its green initiatives could be in the millions of dollars.

As Cisco IT Architect for Physical Infrastructure, Douglas develops architecture roadmaps, solutions and policies for the physical infrastructure of the company's data centers and other critical facilities around the world.

I asked Douglas about what it takes for businesses to green their data centers, how Cisco is eating its own green dog food, and how his former career as a journalist has helped him in his career at Cisco.

Linda Leung: You have a bachelor's degree in journalism, and you had stints as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Syracuse University. Why did you change careers? Are there elements of journalism that have helped you in your career as an IT professional?

Douglas Alger: My career change was actually put into motion by a desire to relocate to San Jose, where I had gone to college years before and where several friends still lived. One of them worked at Cisco, so I called him and asked if he knew whether the company had any openings for technical writers. It did, but my friend also mentioned that his manager was looking to hire someone to do support work for their data centers and ideally create a website to document their data center-related operational policies and procedures, many of which were still taking shape. The position sounded like a new way for me to apply my writing background, and Cisco seemed like a good company to work for, so I decided to apply.

Being able to communicate clearly in writing and produce work while up against daily deadlines are certainly useful skills that can be applied to any field. Probably most helpful from my days as a newspaper reporter, though, has been the ability to investigate unfamiliar subject matter, figure out what are the key elements and then communicate their importance to other people.

LL: You've worked with data center physical design and data center operations for 12 years. What have been the most significant changes in your view during that time?

DA: Designing and operating data centers used to be all about designing resiliency into the facility and then, on the operations side, managing the available floor space and rack space as hardware was deployed. Availability is still the most critical issue nowadays but many other elements — flexibility, scalability, and energy-efficiency — have become priorities as well. And, for most data centers, physical space no longer chiefly defines the capacity of the room — power and cooling do.

LL: What came first, virtualization or green data centers?

DA: Virtualization — in the form of mainframe computers.

LL: What are the chief reasons for companies to launch green initiatives?

DA: To save money, to get more out of company resources, and to not be limited by environmental regulations that are likely to come in the future. Also, being green is not only the responsible thing to do — it's what customers want. (Multiple studies have been taken in recent years that indicate people are willing to pay a premium for goods and services from companies that follow green practices.)

LL: What are the initial considerations that organizations should take before embarking on a green initiative?

DA: I would offer two items to consider. First, what's the ultimate goal of the green initiatives? Is the aim to cut energy consumption? Reduce the company's carbon footprint? Use less water? Limit some other impacts upon nearby communities? As with any project, understanding how you want things to be after your green initiatives have been accomplished will help you be more effective obtaining that goal.

Second, how will progress be measured? Without the capability to track energy consumption, carbon emissions, how much of a given material is diverted from a landfill, or whatever other conditions are relevant to your green initiatives, it's difficult to know the true impact of any improvements you make.

LL: Who in an organization should be involved in such a project, and how do you get buy-in from senior management?

DA: Specific to green data center projects, you need to have involvement from both the IT and facilities organizations. Data centers incorporate multiple technologies that span several professional disciplines — electrical, mechanical, cabling, fire suppression, networking, storage and server platforms — so if you want to truly optimize the entire environment, you should involve subject matter experts with training in each of those areas.

The best way to obtain the support of senior management for a green project is to illustrate its concrete benefits to the company. For data centers, the most obvious one comes in the form of cost savings. Electrical bills are the largest operational expense of any data center, so green improvements that reduce energy usage — replacing hardware with more energy efficient models or optimizing airflow to reduce the power demand of your cooling system, for instance — can be very easy to receive approval to implement.

LL: What have been the unexpected benefits to greening a data center that you've witnessed?

DA: Innovation. When people put their heads together to figure out how to make a data center greener than they ever have, be it an existing room or one that is still on the drawing board, a lot of creative ideas emerge. Ideas such as "How about we use the data center's waste heat in another part of the building?", "What if we could do away with the air conditioning system and cool the room with outside air?", "What if we cleaned up sloppy cabling to improve airflow to our hardware?"

I have participated in a few data center design workshops, and it's fun to watch people get excited and push the boundaries of how efficient they can make their facility.

LL: What common mistakes should organizations avoid when greening a data center?

DA: The only mistakes that I've seen companies make around greening a data center are really in the form of missed opportunities. They either make green improvements in a disconnected way that doesn't allow efficiencies to accumulate, or they put off pursuing green technologies over incorrect assumptions about how expensive they are.

LL: Greening data centers sounds like an expensive project. You need to hire consultants, examine your existing data center and create an eco-friendly alternative — perhaps one that uses newer technologies. What is the cost of going green and when do customers see paybacks?

DA: Many a green technology involves a greater initial cost, but returns that investment within a few years — ultimately paying for itself many times over during the lifespan of the facility. That additional upfront cost — the so-called green premium — varies depending upon what specific green features are implemented. Also, be aware that there are incentive programs offered worldwide by government agencies and utility companies that encourage the use of green technologies.

NetApp completed a data center project in 2008 at their Sunnyvale, California campus that illustrates the money to be had — from incentives and operational savings both — by designing a green facility. The data center's green technologies include air economizers, energy-efficient transformers, and a rotary UPS system, and earned the company a $1.4 million rebate from Pacific Gas and Electric, plus lowered their operational costs by more than $1 million a year. Between the rebate and the energy savings, the company will recover the extra costs of its green technologies in less than two years.

LL: Are there any quick and cheap green activities that organizations can implement now?

DA: Yes, there are several. Identify hardware in your data center that is outdated or poorly utilized and determine whether those machines can be powered off. Install timers and motion sensors on your lighting system.

LL: Are there new business opportunities for organizations that have gone green?

DA: There certainly can be. Being green really entails being able to do more while using less. The result of this is that you then have additional resources available. For companies whose data centers play a critical function in their business, this can be particularly beneficial. Your green data center lowers your operational costs, which makes more money available, and your facility gains how much capacity it has available, allowing you to do more with it as well as putting off the need to build an additional data center in the future.

LL: In your recent article, 10 Questions to Ask to Find a Great, Green Data Center Site, you suggest that organizations should select a site that isn't prone to natural disasters, is located where power is available through a mix of renewable and traditional energy sources, and be located in an area that's not too far for workers to commute. And that the site shouldn't be a huge tax burden for the organization. Doesn't the list narrow somewhat the places that would be suitable?

DA: Yes, it does — particularly if you're seeking a location for a major data center requiring a tremendous amount of power. But that's actually yet another reason for a company to make its data centers green — improving energy efficiency can reduce the need to build a new facility or at least reduce the overall power it requires, increasing the number of feasible locations.

It's nearly impossible to find a site that has all of the ideal qualities to host a data center, let alone optimal conditions for the data center to also be as green as possible. Ultimately, you need to prioritize what qualities are most important for your facility and choose the site that best matches it.

LL: How has Cisco walked the walk and greened its data centers? What have the cost savings been?

DA: Cisco has been optimizing the performance of its data centers through strategic physical infrastructure designs and ensuring high hardware utilization for several years. For the physical infrastructure that has involved high-efficiency power distribution units, variable frequency drives throughout the cooling system, isolated hot and cold airflows, and a distributed cabling design that eliminates dozens of miles worth of structured cabling. The high hardware utilization, meanwhile, has come from significant server virtualization and storage-area networks.

We're doing even more going forward. We're planning to implement rotary UPS systems in new data centers, for example, eliminating batteries that ultimately have to be disposed of. Meanwhile, Cisco's Unified Computing System provides more computing capabilities in our data centers for less power consumption. UCS is also allowing us to scale back the amount of structured cabling we need in the new facilities we're designing.

I haven't seen a single figure that rolls up the savings for all of Cisco's data centers, but it easily adds up to several million dollars per year in reduced energy consumption and avoided hardware purchases.

LL: Cisco is making a big effort at this year's Cisco Live to push the benefits of being "virtually there" by putting a greater emphasis on how virtual attendees can participate using TelePresence and WebEx. Do you think there would become a time when the cost of travel and the eco-benefits of virtual attendance means that Cisco Live will be all-virtual?

DA: It would take some coordination, but I can envision it happening. I get the opportunity to meet with customers a few times a month through TelePresence meetings, and the one-on-one experience is excellent. I think the one element that will be challenging to replicate, though, is the interaction among attendees. When I attend conferences I appreciate not only the chance to hear and talk with the presenters, but also with other attendees who are facing that same challenges that I am.

LL: Final question: what will you be doing at Cisco Live?

DA: I'm going to be at the World of Solutions Expo for much of the day on Tuesday, June 30, including hosting a book signing at noon near the Cisco Press bookstore.

Linda Leung is an independent writer and editor in California. Reach her at leungllh@gmail.com.

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