UW Information Technology

April 19, 2019

Getting servers out of the closet is better for bottom line and for environment

3D illustration of server room in data center full of telecommunication equipment,concept of big data storage and cloud computing technology.

By Elizabeth Sharpe

When the Department of Atmospheric Sciences needed more office space in its building near Drumheller Fountain, it decided to move its servers  to the 4545 Building Data Center, managed by UW Information Technology (UW-IT).

What it got in return was more than just desperately needed office space. The department cut facility costs by decreasing electrical demand by 342,078 kilowatt hours annually. That 47 percent savings resulted from reducing the number of servers they were using by half and moving the remaining servers into the data center. On top of this, nearly $10,000 of its move-in costs were funded by the Transforming Administration Program (TAP), an effort that brings the University’s administrative units together to work as one university administration. The TAP funding helps University departments and units take advantage of more energy-efficient solutions available on campus by assisting in the up-front cost of the move.

In making the move, Atmospheric Sciences joined approximately 60 departments across the UW in choosing to house and manage their own servers in the UW’s central data centers operated by UW-IT. The reasons are clear — data centers are more cost and energy efficient.

Learn more about 24×7 secured access and monitoring server services in the UW’s data centers.

According to a 2013 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory managed by the University of California — most converted server closets and server rooms in buildings consume more power and are significantly less efficient when compared with a data center. In fact, those servers can account for a sizable portion of a building’s total energy use, the study said.

On average, the total power needed by a data center to operate and cool servers for a year is 25 percent less than a server room, and 40 percent lower than a server closet, according to the study. That translates into cost savings on electricity bills. The study found that a data center is 22 percent cheaper to run than a server room and costs 36 percent less than a server closet.

This superior energy efficiency is one major reason why the University established a policy in 2015 to encourage greater use of the UW’s data centers. The policy restricts new server rooms from being built on any campus or upgrades being performed to existing server rooms. Instead, groups are encouraged to work with UW-IT on technology solutions, including moving to a UW data center.

What’s at stake is the increasing need for uninterrupted, secured server power to support innovative research and the University administrative systems, while also increasing energy efficiency. Powering spaces for servers has implications for the UW’s bottom line and for our environment, and not all spaces used for servers are equally efficient.

Energy efficiency by server space

Space Typical room PUE Server power consumption (10 servers) kW Total power consumption (IT and infrastructure) kW Estimated annual energy cost $/year Estimated annual savings if moved to data center $/year
Server room 2 5 10 9,000 2,000
Converted closet 2.5 5 12.5 11,000 4,000
Central data center 1.5 5 7.5 7,000

This table from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s 2013 study compares a server room, a converted closet for servers, and a central data center if each had 10 servers and each server operated at 5 kilowatts of energy.

Connecting to servers in the data center from afar

With the move to the data center, David Warren, director of computing for Atmospheric Sciences, now manages his department’s servers from his desk.

Servers share data or resources among multiple programs or devices and can perform computation for a program too. One machine in Atmospheric Sciences is running software designed to move data — radar and satellite images and raw climate and weather measurements — in near-real time over the Internet to multiple sites around the world. Another cabinet of servers helps run weather and environmental forecasting and prediction modelling.

The department can now accommodate more desks in the Atmospheric Sciences Building, but the server move did not come without some adjustments, Warren says. The servers are no longer next door, and if researchers run into a problem with the server or the connection to the server, it takes more time to get up to 4545 to check things out, Warren says. He’s also now aware of the costs to the department budget, which previously were wrapped up in total facility and administrative operating expenses. Because co-location in the data center is a self-sustaining service, units are billed by server cabinet.

In co-location, a customer manages all aspects of the hardware and software, with the servers in the data center networked to the customer’s location. An alternative option is available where UW-IT manages the servers for the customer.

Another data center customer is UW Bothell, which hosts its servers at the UW Tower and the 4545 Building on the Seattle campus. When UW Bothell made the move, it freed up enough space in Discovery Hall to include a mechanical engineering degree in its STEM program.

The closer to 1.0 PUE, the more efficient the facility

While nationally, data centers across the country are becoming more efficient, the UW Tower Data Center is doing even better. The average power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratings across the industry — a standard method of measuring energy efficiency — have reached a low of 1.58, according to the Uptime Institute, a national advisory organization which surveyed nearly 900 data center operators and IT practitioners across 50 countries in 2018. The closer to 1.0 for the PUE number, the more efficient the facility.

But the UW Tower Data Center is running at 1.34 PUE, lower than the industrial average. The data center in the 4545 Building is about 1.58 PUE, while a campus building has a PUE between 3.0 to 3.5.

UW-IT is always looking for the most efficient power and cooling systems and the most efficient equipment, says Greg Couch, UW-IT Data Center technology manager, who helped design and now manages the data centers. The UW Tower Data Center has received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star certification for six years running, and the UW is the only university in the country to hold such a distinction.

In the data center, cold air circulates under the raised floor of the room, and blows up out of vents in the floor in certain aisles. Hot air is being pulled and pushed up into a ceiling vent and into a HVAC unit.

In the data center, cold air circulates under the raised floor of the room, and blows up out of vents in the floor in certain aisles. Hot air is being pulled and pushed up into a ceiling vent and into a HVAC unit.Illustration by Heidi Searing

“The team isn’t checking off boxes,” he said. “They are always looking for efficiencies.”

Heating a building

To say the UW data centers are energy efficient is not just blowing hot air. In another example of energy efficiency, UW-IT designed the 4545 data center to pull hot air generated from the servers into a system that helps cool the server racks and heat the entire 53,000 square-foot building.

“The data centers operate at optimal performance,” says Couch. “And still, we continue to do our part in conserving energy. It’s a win-win for the University.”