Saturday, August 22, 2009

eBay's Sustainable Data Center

Recently I sat down with eBay’s dynamic Olivier Sanche who is responsible for all of eBay’s data centers. Read his Top 5 activities to  cut operating expenses while improving the environment by reducing energy consumption. 


Green is part of eBay’s DNA
Sustainability at eBay is a strong part of its culture. Its basic business model is all about sustainability, since it encourages reuse by establishing markets for used products.

Continuing the sustainability theme in its operations, both grass roots employee initiatives and broader corporate programs have been launched. Some of these programs include:

  • Employee-led initiatives: Planting organic gardens to supply the campus cafes, banning Styrofoam, and creating rideshare programs.
  • Management-led initiatives: Constructing state-of-the-art green office buildings. For example, its LEED certified building in San Jose is currently the city’s largest solar installation.

Given eBay’s green culture, they were eager to tackle the largest portion of their carbon footprint, the data centers (DC). eBay has set a goal that by 2012, it will reduce emissions by 15% from its 2008 baseline regardless of how much the company grows between 2008 and 2012. They recognized that improving data center emissions will be critical to achieving this goal.

Although eBay is motivated to improve its carbon footprint, it is equally motivated by financial considerations. The improvements implemented by Olivier Sanche and his team have slashed energy costs which are attractive to any company. The activities recommended in the “Top 5” are also appropriate for any size data center in any industry.

eBay’s Olivier Sanche “Top 5” to enhance Data Center sustainability

1) Resear
ch best practices.
There are many excellent resources available including Climate Savers (eBay is a sponsor), Green Grid, and Data Center Pulse. Such resources can help a business determine which activities provide the biggest improvements, learn how to implement current best practices, understand trends to plan accordingly, and connect with other data center professionals interested in sustainability.

2) Baseline current energy costs, apply appropriate metrics and break-down silos.
If not already part of the data center budget, DC energy costs should be moved to the DC budget to provide the necessary visibility to manage.

To improve energy utilization, DC’s usually focus on making the plant and equipment more efficient, but it is just as important to understand how the equipment is used. To illustrate his point, Olivier shared an analogy. When comparing a Hummer and a Prius when looking at mpg, the Prius wins. But if the Hummer is carrying eight people and the Prius is only carrying one person, the person-miles per gallon makes the Hummer more efficient. To understand an analogous person-miles per gallon at the data center, an important metric is “computing per watt”.

It is necessary to partner with application delivery, engineering, architecture and operations to enhance the computing per watt metric. According to Olivier, “a major problem is that a DC is typically siloed from other parts of the organization.” Olivier made the effort to seek out his partners to share the data on energy use and then work together across the organization to find creative solutions.

Without data and metrics, each department will likely focus on their activities and sub-optimize to the determent of the overall goal of sustainability. Armed with the end-to-end view, increasing utilization became a critical goal. The next step was to fine-tune applications, middleware, network, o/s to work better together to perform a function or service or eliminate unneeded code to further drive down energy use. Combining energy reduction for both the equipment and services using the equipment is comparable to using two Prius’s to transport eight passengers and abandoning the Hummer altogether.

3) Live inside Moore’s law.
Olivier Sanche recommends that “Data Centers upgrade server technology continuously to gain more potential computing power per watt.” Historically, there had been little emphasis by the industry on power consumption.

As Olivier pointed out, “Some older style servers use nearly as much energy doing nothing as operating at full capacity.” But many computer suppliers now include energy considerations in the product design leading to impressive improvements in compute power per watt. Some of the areas of improvement include variable power supplies to provide energy efficiency across a range of server utilization, better on-board cooling, and more efficient chips. A good place to start when upgrading is to specify Energy Star equipment.

Given the current pace of improvement in power consumption, eBay has accelerated its technology recycle and now plans to upgrade its gear every two to three years. The economic benefits are very attractive when looking at TCO (Total Cost of Ownership); especially if cheap but energy hungry servers were deployed. As Olivier pointed out, “a cheap server, if not energy efficient, is likely to be expensive over its life.” As reported by eBay in the 2008 Carbon Disclosure Project, "We performed a technology refresh in our data centers in 2007 that resulted in a 25% improvement in energy efficiency."

4) Implement cooling best practices.
Cooling is, for most DC’s, an area where huge benefits may be achieved since the industry average is to expend as much energy cooling a server as operating it.

In traditional data centers, hot and cold air are usually mixed, which is analogous to opening the windows on a hot day. Consequently the A/C needs to work harder. To get the most cooling from the cold air being pumped into the data center, it is critical to segregate the cold air for cooling the equipment from the hot air being created by the equipment.

Once the basic data center air flow has been corrected, the DC may be operated at a warmer temperature rather than the usual “meat locker”. Numerous studies have confirmed that operating at higher temps is safe for equipment.

Finally with these other enhancements in-place, it becomes possible to use outside air for cooling on all but the hottest days when air conditioning can be used to supplement the cooling.

5) Accelerate innovation by sharing with the community.
Share experiences and learning – both success and those activities that were less useful --- with the community and be available to your colleagues to answer questions. Like many companies, eBay had not taken the time and was a bit reluctant to share much about its data centers.

As reported by his colleagues, Olivier has encouraged eBay to “open the kimono” when it comes to sustainability. Olivier was quick to point out that other companies such as Google and Microsoft were also at the forefront of sharing goals, targets and best practices.

This is a good start, but we will need more action from the entire data center community. A recent McKinsey report found that data center emissions are expected to quadruple by 2020 - an issue that will take the industry working together to solve - not just individual companies.

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