Making a virtue of virtualisation

30 May 2008

Virtualisation is enabling one canny hosting provider to meet its environmental obligations and meet surges in computing demand.

As consumers and businesses become more environmentally aware, the technology sector’s energy use is being closely examined for traces of an excessively heavy carbon footprint.

Much of this stems from organisations operating an IT model where they traditionally bought more hardware and systems than they needed in order to cope with potential surges in computing demand.

Advances in technology offer significantly reduced energy requirements compared to older systems, says Stephen McCarron, managing director of Hosting365. “Intel now have low-voltage Xeon processors that operate at 60w, where the old ones used to be at 300w.

“Blade infrastructure runs up to 40pc cooler and more efficiently than traditional servers. And tie that again to VMware virtualisation and storage area networks and we’re seeing power savings in the order of 95pc.”

Part of the problem is that, having invested in technology prior to the latest developments, many IT user organisations are stuck with systems that aren’t so energy-efficient. An alternative option is to move their IT over to a managed service contract, delivered by a data centre operator that can take on the cost.

“Because of the economies of scale, a guy who has three servers isn’t going to spend €1m on blade servers and virtualisation and the skills to go with that, just to save his power bill or see it go down by half,” McCarron points out.

Rising energy prices are starting to force the issue, although McCarron believes many customers are not aware of how poor IT use is translating to higher bills.

“I don’t think it’s a real enough issue for most people. Our model is, we can say: you’ve got a comms room in the corner, it’s costing you €300 a month in power for air conditioning and your machines. We’ll take all that off you and that will take €300 off your bill. I’m not sure if they equate that to also reducing their carbon footprint, but we certainly sell it that way to them,” he says.

Hosting365 recently announced a €2m investment in blade servers and virtualisation technology at its Dublin data centre. This cloud computing infrastructure is a combination of hardware, memory, storage capacity and software that acts as a single, giant machine.

“Virtualisation is the key to the cloud. What virtualisation allows you to do is to treat all of that storage and processing power as one pool,” McCarron explains.

The system has already won some high-profile customers including Tesco, Cityjet, the Hilton Hotel Group, Carphone Warehouse and KLM. “These are all companies that have unpredictable requirements. The old model would have meant a rackful of kit, storage, security and redundancy on the what-if,” McCarron points out. “We’ve been selling to lots of customers but the power consumption graph of the facility has been steadily decreasing month on month, so we expect that by the time we finish our consolidation project our power consumption, and by proxy our cooling consumption, and our overall power utilisation will be back to levels they were at 24 months ago, which is very nice from a green perspective.”

Hosting365 is currently consolidating some of its older hardware for use in the cloud computing architecture and is working on a project aimed at significantly reducing energy consumption still further within the data centre. This will include installing solar tubes on the top floor and putting in place a photo-voltaic system backed by a wind turbine to power most of the office lighting. All of the office-space air conditioning units will be replaced with a system that takes the energy from the data centre server rooms and converts it to hot air in winter or cold air in summer.

“There’s a lot of noise about green this and green that but we’re talking about using the actual heat we generate in the data centre with natural gas turbines to produce the electricity to both power and cool the facility again so you get a complete energy cycle. The amount of power we need from the grid will just be to supplement things we lack power to run,” McCarron explains.

Hosting365 is putting the finishing touches to the plan with some external consultants and expects details on the estimated savings in tonnage of CO2 shortly.

“Our angle is, if we take all of those measures, we’re certainly the most energy-efficient data centre in the country,” McCarron claims. “If you tie that to the blades and the virtualisation, then all of a sudden we’re using 3pc of the power of an identical data centre in the city. It’s a vast difference in terms of credentials.” He points out that Hosting365’s green strategy helped it to sign a contract to host infrastructure for the Environmental Protection Agency.

McCarron believes meeting environmental requirements could be brought into legislation before long, making it obligatory for organisations to comply. “Our plans on carbon reduction are attractive to the big corporates because they know that’s coming down the line and they can make decisions based on 36-month contracts, knowing they’ll be better than compliant when it does come down,” he concludes.

By Gordon Smith