By Jeff St. John
General Electric (NYSE:GE) has just finished a big energy efficiency renovation of its Cincinnati, Ohio data center – and it likes the results so much, it wants to share them with the rest of the world.
The company announced Monday a host of energy efficiency improvements at its Ohio data center, including a cooling system retrofit that will cut its water use by one-fifth and save 24 million kilowatt-hours of power each year, an 11 percent improvement.
But GE is promising potential data center clients bigger savings through its digital energy, lighting systems, water and automation lines of business -- up to a 40 percent cut in energy use at the facility level, said Gregory R. Simpson, GE's Chief Technology Officer.
And potential customers are starting to show interest, said Marcel Van Helten, global industry director for GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, the joint venture of GE and Japan's Fanuc Ltd. that handled the automation of GE's Ohio data center.
"News spreads around pretty quickly. We've got requests," he said. GE's data center efficiency equipment customers have "found out they need more than just product."
Of course, GE isn't the only company promising to help data center operations cut their energy use. Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), IBM, Sun Microsystems (JAVA), Schneider Electric's American Power Conversion and others are getting into the data center efficiency business in a big way (see Sun: Data Center Efficiency for Everyone).
After all, data center energy efficiency isn't just about cutting down on power bills. It's also a must when seeking to expand existing data centers, where the bottlenecks aren't usually floor space, but the infrastructure to bring in the power that expansions require, Simpson said.
"[Utilities] just can't give me any more power without making upgrades to their systems," he said – and that can cost the data center operator millions of dollars. "If I can make it more efficient, I don't have to make those capital investments."
Still, the capital investments are growing. There was a downturn in data center construction after the dot-com bubble burst – but that lull is over now. About $15 billion in new data center construction was underway in the United States last year, said Ken Brill, executive director of the Uptime Institute.
And ongoing power costs aren't negligible either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has predicted that power costs for data centers could rise to as high as $7.4 billion a year without efficiency improvements (see Data Centers Could Hit 'Resource Crisis').
That's made data center efficiency a top priority for IT giants. Hewlett-Packard has pledged to reduce the combined energy consumption of its operations and products 20 percent by 2010, and bought data center design consulting company EYP Mission Critical Facilities Inc. in 2007.
IBM in 2007 said it would spend $1 billion per year on new products and services for data-center efficiency. Sun Microsystems Inc. recently launched a service to advise data center owners on data center strategy, design and construction, adding to efficiency consulting services it started up about a year ago.
But GE might have an advantage over the IT giants, in that it won't be seen as offering its efficiency services mainly as a way of getting its IT equipment into the data center, said Martin Reynolds, vice president at Gartner.
There's plenty of demand for help in data center efficiency, he added.
"The thing about data centers is, it's kind of a scattered business," he said. "It's only in recent years that we've had this focus in data center efficiency, and that is a multi-disciplinary thing. It's about all the bits and pieces that go into it, and it's hard to figure this stuff out."
GE has an entrée into the data center market through its uninterruptible power supply switching equipment and battery business, Van Helten said.
From there, "We started connecting the dots" to a whole host of facility improvements, said Van Helten. "It's the chiller, it's the lighting, it's the water used to clean the chillers," he said. "We're not touching the computers themselves."
But the non-IT side of data centers still accounts for a big chunk of their power use -- and could provide the most room for efficiency gains, according to Google and others (see Advanced Data Centers Claims Super-Efficiency).
GE isn't focusing on data center efficiency optimization as a stand-alone business, as much as a way to bring GE products and services to a new market, Van Helten said.
"The most important thing is that people see the possibility to do this, and then using our equipment to do that, and then the third layer is, using our services – but that's not our main goal," Van Helten said.