IBM to put a more standardized stamp on data centers

Vendor expands modular IT approach as part of its Big Green energy-efficiency program

IBM is trying to do for data centers what McDonald's helped to do for hamburgers and fries: turn the building of them into an efficient, quasi-manufacturing process.

There won't be an assembly line serving up IT facilities. But what IBM says it will do as part of a new initiative announced Wednesday under its Project Big Green energy efficiency program is offer a standardized approach designed to speed construction of data centers and reduce operational costs.

IBM said it will follow a set of best-practices guidelines in designing data centers for customers, and do so in such a way that companies can gradually expand facilities while still matching power and cooling needs to the IT equipment installed them.

With the expansion of Project Big Green, IBM is shifting away from custom-designing data centers, said Steven Sams, the vendor's vice president of global site and facilities services.

As the servers and other devices in data centers become more and more standardized, IT managers should be receptive conceptually to the idea of having data centers that are standardized as well, said Chris Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research. But it's still a big change for users, Mines said, adding that most data centers currently "are a hodgepodge of nonstandard configurations and equipment."

Server vendors, IBM included, have been working to improve the energy efficiency of systems, for instance, by precisely calibrating fan sizes and the speeds at which they operate to specific cooling needs, and using highly efficient power supplies. In a sense, IBM now is extending that kind of energy-efficient engineering to include the rooms in which servers are located. It claimed that its standardized approach can cut operational costs by half over the life of a data center.

IBM launched Project Big Green last year, initially for small and midsize businesses with data centers of up to 2,500 square feet. The company also said then that as part of the program, it planned to replace 3,900 of its own servers with 30 mainframes running Linux and server virtualization software. Wednesday's announcement expands Project Big Green's modular approach to include data centers ranging in size from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet.

In addition, IBM said it is now making systems available in pod-like shipping containers that are 10 feet wide and either 20 or 40 feet long. Container-based systems, which also are being offered by Sun Microsystems and other vendors, are designed for use in quickly building out new data centers or expanding existing ones; they also can be used to set up temporary IT facilities.

Many data centers were built on an ad hoc basis and are ill-designed for the increasingly dense servers that vendors are now selling. They often are also overcooled for their needs and are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Data centers as a whole now account for 0.5 per cent of the world's energy consumption, according to the Uptime Institute, and about half of the energy costs at a typical data center are spent on cooling IT equipment.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, said that the more standardized design and construction approach planned by IBM makes sense because of the speed at which companies are growing their computing operations. But he added that IBM isn't alone in offering such services; in particular, it faces competition from Hewlett-Packard, which last year acquired data center designer EYP Mission Critical Facilities.

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