Man in server room

Energy management software

Software tools have appeared that enable IT managers to better control energy usage across the IT estate.

With a flourishing estate of servers, storage devices, PCs, printers, scanners, switches, routers, and other power-hungry equipment under its province, the IT department is often the first place an organisation looks when seeking to identify ways to reduce its overall electricity consumption.

In response to this IT managers have frequently shown leadership in formulating and implementing carbon-management programmes (CMPs) in their organisations, but until quite recently methods for accurately assessing and controlling energy expenditure have lacked sophistication and technological reach. This issue is compounded in data centres, where hardware growth is driven by the need to keep pace with enterprise expansion. Now energy efficiency software tools have appeared that aim to give IT managers real visibility and control over the energy that their kit consumes.

Before any accurate assessment of power usage can be made, however, IT managers need to ensure they can tap suitable reporting data from hardware, then present it in a way that can instantly identify trends and patterns that can then be acted upon. Command-line interfaces that allow network administrators to monitor the power consumption of individual server power supplies have existed for years, but have been clunky to use, and somewhat one-dimensional in their featuresets, rarely providing basic graphical reporting capabilities, or a central console that provides simultaneous access to multiple sources or statistics.

The process is not helped by the energy-usage reporting functionality that vendors build into their products: while hardware vendors often provide software utilities that monitor the power consumption of their own equipment, importing that data into anything other than the same vendor's systems management tools can be problematic, and in most IT environments you will find kit from several different vendors.

Energy-efficiency

Rising electricity prices are usually enough to persuade businesses to keep close tabs on their power consumption. Recent legislation requires that they also monitor and report carbon emissions, and may even have to buy allowances from the government for each tonne of CO2 they emit in the future, further raising their costs. The Carbon Reduction Commitment energy efficiency scheme (CRC), for example, which came into force last April, is a sort of carbon-emissions trading scheme that applies to all large organisations, public sector bodies, and businesses that consume large amounts of electricity, including data centres, and especially those that consume more than 6,000MWh per year.

Eligible organisations that do not register by 30 September deadline could be fined £5,000, plus an additional £500 for every working day they fail to register up to a maximum of 80 days. Any organisation thinking that hosting its infrastructure in a third-party data centre will help it avoid potential penalties may have to think again; given that the hosting company itself may end up paying a levy, it will seek to pass costs on to its customers. This means the customer will need something that provides greater transparency into its own equipment's power usage and costs in order to check that the provider is not overcharging.

Further pressure on data-centre managers comes from the European Code of Conduct on Data Centres regulation introduced in 2008, which provides best-practice guidelines to drive down energy use and improve energy efficiency within data centres, while the energy performance of buildings regulations SI 2007/991 covers excessive waste of energy, particularly with the data-centre air conditioning systems needed to cool all those servers.

Software solutions

For IT departments tasked with sourcing and presenting all this data on power consumption and cost, two problems usually present themselves: first, how to extract information out of unmetered, as well as metered, hardware devices; and second, how to quickly and easily access all the information obtained from so many different devices. Some of the bigger server, networking, and data-centre infrastructure manufacturers have already added power metering and monitoring utilities to their hardware.

Vendors like IBM, HP and Dell, for example, link their software to power distribution units (PDUs), which monitor individual and multiple racks of servers in the data centre to find out precisely how much power the equipment on each unit, which might include network switches and storage appliances, is using. IBM PowerExecutive, for its bladecenter and System X servers, ties into IBM Director systems management software to monitor and report on server power consumption, for example. Others, like IntelliData Systems, specialise in producing cabinet and rack-mounted power strips with inbuilt metering, environmental monitoring, and remote shutdown capabilities for any attached equipment. They also offer inline devices for individual mainframe computers or other devices, complete with connectors which are able to plug in temperature and humidity probes.

While different bits of hardware monitor and collect information about energy consumption in different ways, getting that data often involves manually checking individual system logs or configuration screens, or accessing multiple, proprietary software applications tied to that specific vendors hardware. What data centre - and indeed IT managers generally - most need is a single application able to collect all those statistics automatically, and present the data in an easy-to-use interface that allows them to quickly identify patterns in their hardware electricity usage.

Simple as it sounds, several challenges present themselves, despite the fact that this issue is not new, and also despite the significant opportunity a integration solution presents to software vendors large and small. Third-party software is widely available to performs this task, to be sure, and it is effectively vendor-agnostic; however, it varies in its scope, cost, and functionality. It ranges from basic utilities for remote monitoring and shut down of desktop PC and monitors, for example, to full data-centre suites that tap into many different types of data-centre rack equipment to monitor how much power multiple devices are using - and how costing.

Most will allow the administrator to set power usage thresholds, which then send an alarm when they are breached, either through an email or another form of communication. Almost all provide reporting capabilities that detail trends and patterns in power usage, total power input, carbon emissions, and costs, some for billing and charge-back purposes. The more advanced software is able to assess the cost of electricity supplies from multiple energy suppliers, and data-centre providers for billing purposes and comparison.

None of these software suites or applications do everything, but for energy management in large data centres, NLyte's DCIM (Data-centre Infrastructure Management) stands out. Most notably, its integration kit and application programming interface (API) enable third-party developers or in-house development teams to code their own software interfaces for different types of hardware, which can at least be included in the DCIM catalogue, if not pull-out real-time monitoring statistics depending on the protocols in use.

These could include all kinds of non-IT devices such as air-conditioning units, or sensors that monitor floor heat, for example, as well as door sensors which indicate when a cabinet is open deliberately or inadvertently (a situation that has a major effect on overall data-centre cooling), and RFID-based monitoring systems such as Rittal's Dynamic Rack Control that track the movements of specific units as they are relocated. Armed with detailed energy consumption data for every piece of equipment within the data centre - both IT and non-IT; information on hot and cold spots; and modelling software that predicts how equipment can be rearranged for optimum temperature control - it is much easier for organisations to identify ways to reduce data-centre energy consumption. In response to this need, several developers have created products aimed at giving data-centre managers better reporting information, and better control, over energy expenditure their operating domains.

Such products may prove to be not only an emerging and important category of IT management application, but also become a key tool in bringing IT energy expenditure under control, and in managing carbon-control programmes that the IT function will have to work within.

No single solution is ever going to be totally accurate; but given that most IT managers never even see their company electricity bills, any software tool that helps them identify exactly where power is being consumed, and by which type of equipment, will be a step forward for most.

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