US Congress targets server power usage

The US government wants more energy-efficient devices, but users say operating efficiency may be affected. Patrick Thibodeau reports

The US House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring a federal study of ways to improve the energy efficiency of servers and datacentres.

The legislation, backed by IT vendors and approved by a 414-4 House vote, now goes to the Senate. If enacted, it will require the US Environmental Protection Agency to recommend incentives and voluntary programmes to cut power consumption at datacentres in the federal government and the private sector.

Michigan Representative Michael J Rogers, the bill’s sponsor, says he hopes the EPA study will build support for energy-efficiency ratings for servers modelled on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ratings for home appliances. It may also lead to incentives for users who buy energy-efficient servers and may spark the creation of rules governing servers bought by federal agencies, Rogers says.

Several IT vendors are already working on a specification for measuring the energy efficiency of servers at different performance levels so buyers can comparison-shop. In May, Standard Performance Evaluation, a non-profit standards group, set up a committee to prepare a standard for ratification sometime next year.

“There needs to be a standard way of measuring so customers can compare efficiency between servers,” says Andrew Fanara, a team leader for the EPA’s Energy Star programme. “Right now, they can’t do that in any standardised way.”

However, it remains to be seen whether energy ratings will alter the buying habits of IT managers, who may be constrained by business requirements for how fast they process data.

“When you are looking at this from a business perspective, you want this stuff to work as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” says Troy Montfort, datacentre manager at Spectrum Health Hospitals. When it comes to choosing between a slower server that generates less heat and a faster server, IT managers will probably go for the faster system, he says.

An energy rating on a refrigerator is one thing, but for a server “it’s a whole different world, in my opinion”, Montfort says. “In the healthcare industry, when I have a doctor wanting somebody’s record or [a] look at their CT scan he doesn’t want to sit and wait for that thing to load.”

The bill urges IT managers to “give high priority to energy efficiency as a factor in determining best value and performance for purchases of computer servers”.

The energy efficiency of a server “is an important consideration”, says Dawn Sawyer, operations manager at GuideStone Financial Resources, of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. “It is not the main consideration, though. Our main consideration on servers is processor speed. That’s going to trump the energy efficiency of a server,” she says.

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