University Launches Data Center Lab, Consolidation Effort - InformationWeek

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University Launches Data Center Lab, Consolidation Effort

With funding from tech vendors and government agencies, Carnegie Mellon opens its Data Center Observatory to improve energy efficiency, reduce management costs, and consolidate server clusters.

Despite years of Lip Service, most businesses have done a poor job of using technology to manage their technology. They've tried standardization, consolidation, automation, best practices, and outsourcing. Yet they're still spending about 80% of their IT budgets to maintain systems and keep the lights on, while only 20% goes toward new technology and innovation.

Mott knows the numbers

Mott knows the numbers

Photo by Sacha Lecca
Changing that ratio is difficult, despite falling hardware prices and the availability of inexpensive or free open source software. As companies consolidate data centers, it can take more costly electricity to power and cool closely packed racks of servers and storage systems. And those centers require more experienced--and more expensive--staffers to manage the systems, applications, and databases.

Tech companies, which are trying to help their customers deal with these issues, face the same challenges. Hewlett-Packard last week said it will consolidate 85 data centers worldwide into six centers in three U.S. cities. The effort is expected to reduce the company's IT spending by about $1 billion in the coming years and dramatically shift where the money goes. HP spends about half its IT budget on operations and half on new initiatives and innovation, says Randy Mott, HP's executive VP and CIO.

Once the consolidation is completed, HP expects spending on IT operations to drop to around 20% of the IT budget. "There are huge costs to be saved by making the right technology investments so that you are utilizing the power of technology," says Mott, a former CIO at Wal-Mart and Dell.

The latest challenge is the cost of energy, which has spiked with the jump in oil prices. In many cases, it now costs more to power and cool a data center than to buy the servers and storage systems to fill it. Tech vendors are trying to help. Advanced Micro Devices and Intel are producing dual-core server processors with built-in virtualization capabilities that require less power and throw off less heat, reducing cooling needs. And IBM last week introduced the IBM PowerExecutive, a system to automate the management of power consumption in data centers to cut energy costs.

Define The Problem

The best first step is to clearly understand where the IT dollars go--but that isn't always easy. A survey of IT executives by Forrester Research shows that 38% of IT budgets is spent on salaries and benefits for full-time staff, more than twice what's spent on hardware. A Carnegie Mellon University survey of dozens of IT managers shows that IT personnel costs range from four to seven times the cost of hardware.

"It's amazing how poorly as an industry we understand these costs," says Greg Ganger, director of Carnegie Mellon's Parallel Data Laboratory. "If we can't define the problem, you're going to have a hard time coming up with answers."

The university started to work more intensively on the problem last week when it opened its Data Center Observatory, which will serve as a consolidated data center for the school and as a lab for researchers to study data center operations and costs. The main focus: Develop strategies for improving energy efficiency in data centers and reduce management and administrative workloads and costs. Carnegie Mellon also is moving a dozen or more small server clusters used by various research groups at the university into the center.

Carnegie Mellon's efforts are being supported and funded by HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Symantec, and other vendors as well as government sponsors, including the Air Force Office for Scientific Research, the Army Research Office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.

The university plans to fill the 2,000-square-foot facility with 40 racks of servers. Just that level of density presents problems: It will require about 775 kilowatts of energy to power the center--enough to run about 750 2,000-square-foot homes. To power and cool a center of that size also will require a raised floor 3 to 4 feet deep to run power cables and cooling conduits and systems, rather than the usual 31-inch raised floor.

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