Data Centers Push Back on US Efficiency Requirement

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Data center executives from Google and other large companies are pushing back against new efficiency requirements proposed by a prominent standards group, saying they are too "prescriptive" and don't leave them room to innovate.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, better known as ASHRAE, recently proposed the amendments to its efficiency standard for buildings, ASHRAE Standard 90.1.

"This standard defines the energy efficiency for most types of buildings in America and is often incorporated into building codes across the country," Urs Hoelzle, Google senior vice president for operations, wrote in a post on the Google blog Monday.

Data centers are among the fastest-growing users of energy, and setting efficiency standards for them is a welcome step, he said. But he called the requirements "too prescriptive." Instead of setting efficiency targets and letting engineers decide how they can best meet them, the amendments specify types of cooling systems that companies should use.

For example, they require the use of air or water economizers. Air economizers use outside fresh air to supplement the cooling done by heavy mechanical air conditioners, which can reduce overall energy use.

The Google post is co-signed by executives from Microsoft, Nokia, Amazon, Dupon Fabros Technology and Digital Realty Trust.

The fact that they went public with their concerns shows how sensitive these companies are to any restrictions on the creative ways they might come up with to manage their data centers. It also points to the increased attention being paid to the cost of running such facilities.

Ironically, Google is a big fan of air economizers. They can be "a great way to cool data centers," Hoelzle said. They just might not be the right choice for all situations.

Burton Group analyst Nik Simpson agreed. "The truth is that economizers are just one approach to achieving more efficient energy usage and the best approach will vary based on a host of factors," he wrote in his blog. "For example, one company might favor widespread adoption of server virtualization as a way to reduce energy consumption, while another might be able to scavenge energy from the waste heat produced by the data center and use it to heat buildings."

The danger, he said, is that ASHRAE's standard will become part of building construction codes and restrict the ability of data centers to innovate.

"I think we're all uniformly in agreement with ASHRAE in the intent of 90.1," James Hamilton, an engineer with Amazon Web Services, wrote in his own blog Monday. "What's needed to make it a truly influential and high-quality standard is that it be changed to be performance-based rather than prescriptive."

ASHRAE is sticking to its guns, at least for now. In a statement on Tuesday responding to Hoelzle's post, it said there are eight exceptions to the requirement for using economizers.

It added that: "The addendum does not change the portion of the standard that already allows, through the Energy Cost Budget method (an alternate method of compliance), for data centers to be designed without economizers if other energy saving methodologies, including power usage effectiveness (PUE), are employed."

ASHRAE is taking comments on the proposal until April 19. The proposed amendments are described here.

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