GE Greens Data Center, Pushes Its Technology

By upgrading its data center with its own equipment, General Electric is reducing its need for energy, water, and chemicals and creating a demonstration project for potential customers.
General Electric is taking a bit of its own medicine to help it become more energy efficient. It's greening its Cincinnati data center with GE equipment and hopes to eventually do the same in several other GE data centers.

"It's great for me because I don't have to go convince someone to let me go spend millions of dollars to expand the data center," CTO Greg Simpson said in an interview. "I can continue to use this one more and more efficiently over time and get more and more computers into this center as we collapse and consolidate systems across the company."

GE joins a growing number of companies scrambling to address ballooning energy costs in the data center over the last few years. Trends like data center consolidation, virtualization, and data center infrastructure upgrades have all followed a surge in energy costs and continued business needs for more and more server resources.

A number of factors justified and even necessitated GE's data center upgrade. The 29,000-square-foot data center had aging chillers that risked making the data center itself less reliable. The company was looking to avoid a costly upgrade to its power supply -- the facility already consumed 24 million kWh of power annually -- that would have likely been accompanied by purchases of additional equipment such as batteries and generators. And GE's Ecomagination initiative -- one part corporate responsibility, one part revenue-motivated effort to sell more green technology -- didn't hurt things either. "All the stars were aligned," Simpson said.

As a result of the upgrade, GE anticipates it will save 11% on the energy used for cooling, decrease water use by 20%, and reduce the use of water-treatment chemicals by 40%. Instead of paying the local utility $3 million to bring in substantially more power, GE can continue working within the same constraints as it had before.

Major elements of the data center upgrade included the replacement of chillers, installing a building management system, and putting into place an air-side economization system, which uses outside air to help cool the data center. GE used almost 30 of its own products in the upgrade, from security and electrical switching to water, building management, and power backup. For example, it's now using GE's reverse-osmosis system to purify water, cutting back on the need for chemicals to purify the water the data center uses and helping to prolong the life of pipes.

Some of these systems have been repurposed from their traditional uses. The company is using a product typically used for factory management as the building management system for the data center, controlling cooling, electrical, security systems, and lighting via a computer dashboard. The dashboard also gives GE the ability to trend energy-efficiency data over a period of 13 months to help more effectively tune data center systems and measure data center performance against important operational metrics.

Ohio is but the first stop on GE's data center upgrade mission. Other data centers, like a much larger one in Georgia where GE has had to spend money to increase power supply, will likely see similar upgrades. However, the goal was not only to provide a blueprint for future data center upgrades, but also to put all of the GE products that could be used in data centers under one roof to be able to show to customers as an example and proof point.

GE's data center energy-efficiency measures don't stop at the facilities. The company is working hard at virtualization and recognizes that server upgrades can save money if the new servers take advantage of energy-saving hardware. The virtualization initiative has evolved into a private cloud initiative, partially because Simpson believes managing server resources as a single entity will allow GE to make its data centers even more efficient than would managing virtual servers separately.