The European Eco-Design Directive: A Problem for Data Centers?

John Laban
John Laban, European Representative for the Open Compute Project Foundation

The EU wishes to lower the energy usage of the data center industry in Europe. It is Brussels’ view that there is a lot to be gained when we lower the energy consumption of idle servers and storage products. The EU has already dedicated a sizable R&D budget to that purpose in the form of projects like Eureka, Geyser and Catalyst. And now they are looking at a metric that might help them lower the energy used by individuals IT hardware products.

Author: John Laban, European Representative for the Open Compute Project Foundation

All of a sudden there is a sometimes strongly worded discussion raging in the European data center industry. The instigator is the European Eco-Design Directive that also applies to enterprise servers and storage products in data centers.

Several industry spokespersons have stated that this directive will be bad for the European data center industry because it will force the industry to stop using large numbers of servers that are in use right now. Especially in the UK but in other countries as well the IT and data center industry feels that this directive will force them to stop selling and using large numbers of servers that consume a certain amount of energy when idle. They feel that it is wrong to use a metric for the energy usage of servers when they are idle. It is their vision that the best way to measure energy usage is when the server is idle AND when it is being utilized at a much higher level.

Enterprise Servers, Data Storage Products

This so called ‘Eco-Design Directive’ is not new – in fact it was established in 2009. Its aim is to ensure the free movement of products within the internal market. The EU has identified enterprise servers and data storage products as priority products for which it wants to determine whether and which Eco-Design requirements could be appropriate. In 2015 there was a so-called ‘Circular Package’ added to the directive that indicates the plans of the European Commission to systematically consider the resource efficiency requirements that are part of the Eco-Design Directive. This covers areas such as reparability of products but also durability, recyclability and more.

So it makes sense that the European Commission tries to establish metrics that help determine the – lets call it – ‘circularity’ of products like servers and storage hardware in data centers. Because frankly, they are right when they say that the European data center industry is using an enormous amount of energy.

In my opinion it is perfectly reasonable that the EU tries to lower the energy usage and thereby the environmental impact of the data center industry. Europe is a major party in the Paris agreement on climate change so it was to be expected that the European Commission would like to work with the data center industry to come up with policies and technology to drastically lower the impact of data centers on the environment. Whether the EC is using the correct metric here is up for debate. Should we look at the energy consumed by idle servers? Maybe. Or the energy consumed by servers running at 60% capacity? Could make sense as well.

OCP Standards Based Technology

I think that focusing on an individual metric is beside the point. In my opinion we as a data center industry have to come up with the technology that makes it possible to overall lower the energy consumption of European data centers. And the interesting thing here is: that technology already exists.

What makes this discussion a bit complicated is that a lot of vendors are still selling traditional hardware products. And these are precisely the products that are causing the high energy usage in the industry.

There are products out there though that have been designed with energy efficiency as one of the primary design goals. They are based on open source principles so it is very easy for both manufacturers and data centers to study these designs and use them if they like what they see.

So why are OCP designs so well suited for solving this energy problem of the European data center industry? There are three topics I would like to mention here.

The first one is the energy used by fans in servers and storage products. Fans are responsible for a disproportionately large percentage of the total energy used by a server. Within the Open Compute Project – which is an open source hardware movement – we have come up with designs that dramatically lower the energy used by fans. The trick is: use fewer but larger fans.

The second point I would like to stress is the Power Supply Unit. In a traditional server there is a PSU designed into each and every server. Good idea when an IT department is using just a handful of servers. But does it still make sense to equip every server with its own PSU when you host hundreds of racks with 40 or more servers per rack in a data center? Why not use a centralized power distribution system so we can take out the very energy-inefficient PSU? When you take a look at the design of an OCP server that is exactly what we have done.

2nd User Hardware

The third and last point is maybe not so much focused on technology but more on planning and designing an appropriate compute architecture. There is tendency within the data center industry to always use the latest and greatest servers and other hardware products. But not every application or cloud service needs to be supported by brand-new IT hardware. Within the OCP community we see a very interesting trend where more and more companies are using – what we call – 2nd user hardware. These are servers and other hardware products that may be two or three years old but are capable of supporting certain applications for many years to come; applications that do not require the latest technology. If we start utilizing these servers at levels that optimize their energy usage – say: 60 or 70% – we are not only able to make use of the energy advantages of heavily virtualized servers but we have a CAPEX that is interesting as well.

My conclusion after reading many of the discussions on the Eco-Design Directive is that many vendors and data centers focus solely on the idle server metric. They therefore feel the EU plan might very well turn out to become a big headache for them.

I have a somewhat different view. In my opinion the Eco-Design Directive gives us an excellent opportunity to work on solving a very real problem: the very high energy usage of data centers in Europe. And since the designs to start lowering that energy usage are readily available I think the EU is actually giving us a great opportunity here.

So lets start using the open source designs that are able to lower the energy usage of servers and other data center hardware. Don’t be surprised if at the same time that will bring us a cost reduction of at least 50%.


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