As Australia’s ICT industry scrambles to become more environmentally friendly, the proliferation of buzzwords and vendor hype is making many see red instead of Green.
Despite a lack of government leadership beyond the symbolic ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, Australian businesses are expressing immense interest in going Green.
Analyst firm Gartner has identified Green IT as the number one strategic technology and trend for most organisations in 2008.
Driving much of the buzz around Green IT is a growing number of vendors trumpeting virtualisation as an easy and cost-effective way for organisations to reduce their carbon footprint, while also cutting costs.
Virtualisation comes in many flavours, ranging from server and desktop solutions to storage and network offerings. At its very simplest, virtualisation is an attempt to maximise the utilisation of available computing resources. This is most commonly achieved by placing a software-based “virtual machine” between a hardware platform and an operating system.
This abstraction layer, often referred to as a hypervisor, completely emulates the capabilities of the hardware on which it is running. It effectively creates a clone of the hardware itself, making it possible to run multiple instances of an application or operating system on a single physical machine.
Virtualisation has its roots in mainframe computing in the 1970s. Largely a dormant technology, it has recently risen to the fore as a response to the hangover of cheap x86 servers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Twenty years ago, the decision by IT managers around the world to install servers whenever a new application was needed seemed perfectly legitimate given the low cost of procuring and maintaining these servers. As a result data centres were soon filled with a cornucopia of application, print, database, web, file and mail servers.
Unfortunately, data centre space and power grid capacity is finite, and this proliferation of servers began to eat up the available real estate and send power, maintenance and administration costs skyrocketing.
These costs have brought the problem into sharp focus and provided virtualisation vendors with almost limitless opportunities to ply their virtualisation solutions.
Initial efforts around virtualisation have been directed at the data centre. The enterprise data centre is typically considered the largest culprit when it comes to harming the environment. As one of the principal users of energy, optimising servers in data centres through virtualisation technology is often seen as the easiest and most effective way for a company to slash its energy bills and transition into Green IT.
When thinking about virtualisation it is important to be aware of the direct linear relationship between the use of power and the production of carbon dioxide. With 80 percent of Australia’s electricity generated by coal-fired power stations, any technology that can reduce the amount of power used by computers will also have a direct effect on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Research conducted by the Australian Computer Society indicates that each server removed from a data centre represents a yearly reduction of more than three tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. With many organisations routinely running scores of servers, the carbon footprint savings gained by virtualising can be significant.
According to Paul Harapin, managing director of VMware Australia and New Zealand, one of the most common factors driving virtualisation uptake in the local market is power grid capacity limits.
"We’ve had customers who have been told you can’t put any more computing capacity into the building because the power grid can’t power it."
Besides being extremely hungry for power, servers are also becoming increasingly expensive to run. After the initial capital expenditure, an average two CPU server costs an IT department around $2000 per annum in electricity to run and cool.
With the price of power continuing to rise and as yet unknown financial penalties set to be introduced with the Federal Government’s emissions trading scheme, Harapin said that businesses without a plan to reduce their server power consumption will find themselves facing increasing financial hardship.
“The cost of power is going up exponentially and will do so over the next few years, while the cost of computing is getting cheaper. That means that the cost of power is becoming one of the most expensive components of computing.”
With more than 5000 Australian customers, VMware is considered to be at the forefront of server virtualisation technology. VMware has virtualised more than 86 percent of the Australian Stock Exchange’s top 100 companies and earlier this year inked a three-year deal to license its virtualisation products and support to more than 45 universities and higher education institutions in Australia and New Zealand.
According to Harapin, virtualisation has become a key driver for those corporations looking to become more environmentally responsible.
“Virtualisation is certainly gaining significantly greater traction. Is it the number one topic on an organisation’s board agenda? Probably not. But is it one of the important topics? Absolutely.”
Rob Willis, area vice president Australia and New Zealand at Citrix Systems, claims that virtualising the data centre provides businesses with a valuable tool for controlling their power consumption.
“Virtualisation offers the opportunity for people to really reduce their power consumption and to manage power consumption more than they are doing today. It allows for a lot more flexibility and control over the use of power in the data centre,” he said.
Server virtualisation plays an important role in power management. When employees finish their working day and go home for the evening, the utilisation of servers in a data centre drops dramatically.
Traditional data centres continue to leave servers running around the clock, irrespective of demand. By using distributed power management tools, mission-critical workloads can be consolidated onto a footprint of servers with sufficient capacity to run the applications. The remaining servers can then be powered down until they need to be brought back online the following morning.
Using virtualisation technology, it is possible to consolidate the workloads of 10 or 12 servers onto a single server. The advantages of this level of reduction are obvious and compelling.
Besides clear benefits such as cutting power costs and reducing an organisation’s carbon footprint, an important consequence of virtualisation is the opportunity to reduce server support infrastructure.
Servers are housed in racks – the more servers a company has the more racks are needed. With racks comes the need for UPS systems to protect against unexpected power failure. More network devices are also needed to allow users to connect and utilise the applications hosted on each server. Of course, these devices must all be cooled by precision airconditioning units.
Cutting down the number of servers in a data centre will drastically reduce the power footprint of the surrounding infrastructure.
Although increasing numbers of Australian organisations are adopting virtualisation, Angus Jones, marketing manager of servers and storage at HP, said there is a worrying trend that many of these businesses are not actually taking the consolidated servers out of active use.
“Most customers are doing virtualisation today. The really interesting thing is there is quite a large proportion of people who are not turning off their old servers. So although they are getting the benefits of virtualisation, they’re not necessarily turning the old boxes off,” he said.
In recent times virtualistion has also moved beyond the data centre. Recent developments have seen attention directed at reducing the power used by employees while working on their desktop computers.
Though in its infancy, desktop virtualisation holds much promise according to Rob Willis, area vice president Australia and New Zealand at Citrix Systems.
“The desktop virtualisation space is fairly new and we’re seeing a lot of interest that is still building.”
The logic behind desktop virtualisation is simple. Desktop computers consume large amounts of power. Despite running for eight to 12 hours a day – and often left on overnight – these computers are commonly used for little more than checking emails and basic word processing. Similarly to a server, much of the computing potential of a desktop computer is simply never used.
The current solution to this is thin-client terminals. Thin clients are effectively stripped-down computers that relay input and output to and from a server. As they farm out all but the most basic of processing activities, these small terminals have very low power footprints, often saving 30 to 45 percent of the power used by a standard desktop computer. When multiplied across multiple desktops, the power and carbon savings offered by a thin client can be substantial.
Storage, too, is receiving attention from virtualisation vendors. As an organisation’s storage needs continue to expand year on year, so too do its power requirements.
While storage virtualisation remains a niche area, Simon Elisha, head solutions architect at Hitachi Data Systems, claims that there has been massive adoption in this space due to the complementary nature of storage and server virtualisation.
“It is a very well-understood technology. It is mature and it has been delivered extensively throughout Australia in the Australian market with Australian people. It’s an established, reliable, valuable technology.”
Other approaches such as network and application virtualisation are also playing a key role in transforming the way people approach Green computing.
Although people are frequently wary of Greenwash and buzzwords, often with good reason, virtualisation’s dual benefit of enabling dramatic reductions in power usage and lowering power costs means that companies can make a real and quantifiable contribution to reducing their carbon footprint. It is here where virtualisation’s value is hard to overstate.
Despite its potential, Angus Jones from HP is quick to caution against relying on virtualistion as a panacea.
“You need to look at the bigger picture. Virtualisation is a point solution. It is one solution amongst many that we need to be looking at,” he said.