Rackspace: a realistic green pioneer

The pace of green datacentre change: edging ahead but not racing

Rackspace provides datacentre facilities under a managed hosting scheme. It is building a new UK datacentre and has had a green aspect to its business for about a year and a half. How is that affecting its operations?

Techworld talked to Fabio Torlini, Rackspace's marketing director, about the greening of its datacentres and the green influences on it.

Can you give an overview of Rackspace's operation please?

We provide datacentre services through managed hosting with five datacentres in the USA and three in he UK. We have around 40,000 Dell and HP servers altogether. There are 1,600 employees in the USA and 330 in the UK.

Do you rent or lease space?

The three UK datacentres are actually space in co-location centres but we are consolidating them to our own new datacentre. We design the datacentre layout and are responsible for everything inside the walls except the customers' applications. For our customers we provide the racks, networking, routers, servers, security, services and storage. Our customers can't put anything (directly) into these data centres. They can't even go in. There's a window they can look through.

Are you interested in 'greening' your datacentres?

We decided to do it off our own backs. It's part of the company culture. Our customers weren't really pushing us, but they are supporting us. We kicked things off a year ago, planting trees for our customers. It's a tiny step. We knew that wasn't the solution.

We couldn't do zoned cooling in the co-lo datacentres. We pay for the electricity use and the co-lo owners couldn't care less. The co-lo infrastructure doesn't encourage green datacentres.

What have you done to increase power-efficiency?

The present co-location arrangements limits what Rackspace can do. Inside our space we've done what e can do so far. We changed from Intel to AMD processors because they were 20 percent more power efficient. We encouraged Dell to use AMD chips. It saves us money on power consumption and keeps our costs in check because the price of power is rising so quickly; it's doubling every year. It also lowers our carbon footprint and that's simply a good thing.

Do customers get any direct benefit from this, such as lower prices?

There is a price advantage for the customers in the long term but not the short term.

Do customers have any influence about what happens, concerning power efficiency and cooling in their managed datacentre?

No they don't. All they want is a datacentre service and that's what we deliver.

What's happening with the new datacentre?

In the new datacentre we're investing heavily in the cooling systems. We build the datacentre in suites and cool the occupied and working suites, not the whole room. The suites are partitioned-off areas, for customers, and we cool them using fresh air when possible. In the winter time heat will be dissipated naturally and it's in winter that you get the cost-savings. The new centre should be twenty percent more power-efficient because of this.

The new datacentre is located in the Slough area and its power comes from a power station run on recyclable energy sources and that's an added bonus.

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How can existing SME and department datacentre owners best pursue power-efficiency?

They can offload their datacentre burden onto us and share in the resources we provide for all our customers. Customers will find it very difficult to green their own datacentres, to get IT and facilities in step on power bills, etc. In some ways it's easier to offload the whole thing to a managed hosting service.

Remind me again why you're going green.

We're doing it because it makes business sense. It's something we are (all) going to have to do so I'd rather be at the forefront.

Do you think legislation is coming that will force the green pace?

For sure. Regulation is going to come, probably taxation too, for all organisations; quite possibly in terms of a carbon budget. I assume something will happen.

Where does this leave us?

Rackspace is a realistic green pioneer with its new datacentre. It is not spending wildly on green initiatives that will cost more to implement than they will return in cost-savings and/or increased customer revenue. Unless legislation, possibly augmented by specific taxation policies, forces it to do more it will not do any more than treating power efficiency as a good way of lowering costs with the happy added benefit of lowering its carbon footprint, which is a good thing in itself.

What Rackspace is doing is made possible by it building a brand new data centre, and wouldn't have been possible in its leased co-location facilities. It's working at the suite level in a building which it owns so it has a relatively free run, it being the lord of all its suites. Suites are cooled as they are occupied by servers; the room generally is not. By using cold outside air to cool these suites in winter months the overall air-conditioning and cooling bill is cut. It's sensible and proportionate and doesn't involve spending an additional million pounds or more on sensor-based rack zone cooling.

It's probably less than environmental campaigners would wish but it is progress and Rackspace is clearly willing to do more if its business environment changes. We shouldn't expect any more than this. This is the green datacentre reality, and unless you are a bank with zillions of pounds to spend it is very probably your reality too.

Greening existing datacentres' physical infrastructure will be difficult. Consolidating server and storage contents through virtualisation and networking ian be a good thing. Retro-fitting advanced cooling systems to existing centres will cost serious money. If you are moving into a new datacentre then you have a much freer hand and will get more green bangs for your buck. That's the lesson to draw from the Rackspace experience.