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IT energy consulting services on the rise

VARs see increased demand for energy consulting services and expect new technologies, high energy costs and bigger budgets to drive adoption in data centers.

VARs expect demand for energy consulting services to increase dramatically in 2011. New energy-efficient equipment and high energy costs are forcing data center customers to modify their existing infrastructure or be left behind. And it doesn't hurt that some energy companies are sweetening the pot with cash-back incentives for energy-saving businesses.

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"Every customer in San Francisco wants PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric] rebates. If you make energy-efficiency changes with six figures or above, you get 5% rebate from PG&E. [Customers] want to know how they can get the rebate, and they want the VAR to guide them through that process," said Mike Mersch, director of sales and operations for Channel Performance Inc., based in San Francisco.

On top of rebates, VARs said energy-efficient technologies have matured and a strengthening economy makes data center updates more palatable.

"There are a lot of old systems out there that need to be modernized. As the economy improves and new money frees up, people are investing in new modular power and cooling solutions," said Perry Szarka, strategic business unit leader for the converged network group with MCPc Computer Products & Consulting Inc., in Cleveland.

Green publicity just a bonus, not a driving factor

Many customers opt for energy-efficient technologies because of their demographics -- they are a green company -- or because company leaders believe in the importance of environmental sustainability. Enterprises are also attracted to the green image; they want to be able to claim they are environmentally responsible.

But in the end, it all comes down to the green dollar, VARs said. CEOs and CFOs want to save money on upfront capital costs and ongoing operational expenses, and that's what's prompting them to invest in new energy-efficient technologies and to also seek out help from solution providers.

"There's not nearly as much interest in saving the planet as there is in gaining the strategic advantage. Being politically correct on the green front is great, but saving space and money is what's most important," said Kevin McDonald, executive vice president of Alvaka Networks Inc., a managed services provider based in Irvine, Calif.

A lot of solution providers see the green label as a convenient marketing term for what they've been doing (or should have been doing) all along -- saving customers' money and helping them reduce energy consumption.

Data center, power consumption consulting intertwined

Providing energy consulting services is crucial to solution providers that want to take advantage of the green boom, and many say they already offer such services to at least half of their customers.

"We're in California so [energy savings] is a major issue out here because of the rising cost and scarcity of data center space. Data centers are few and far between. Almost every conversation with a customer starts with should we build or take over some existing space for our data centers," Mersch said.

Others find that any time they speak to a customer about their data center, energy efficiency is part of the conversation, especially with Energy Star data center equipment coming out this June. When customers talk about the data center, they're talking about a new UPS system, expansion of an existing space or moving to a larger data center, say VARs. Customers are looking for more modern, more efficient ways of doing things and that's where VARs can strike gold.

Put simply, older servers use more power, even if those servers run more virtual machines than ever. Modern servers with new chips running VMware's vSphere can really save on energy bills, said Mark Melvin, CTO of Eplus Inc., a Herndon, Va., integrator. VSphere lets data centers power down non-mission critical applications and reschedule them to run in off-peak hours. Sometimes dormant servers can be shut down altogether for some period of time.

Server virtualization and utilization are key aspects of a data center assessment. "If you have 5% of [server] utilization or 10%, which is the average, you're still sucking up a lot of power … a newer server will be much more resilient. … [It will] wind itself down a bit … and use less power. Combine that with virtualization and you get a lot more efficient data center," Melvin said.

"Data centers [are] one of our biggest businesses … [but you] need to understand where you're moving your virtual images to and from," he said, "especially in small and midsized data centers where you don't have a ton of cooling."

Offering energy consulting services

When providing energy consulting services, solution providers should assess a customer's existing situation, determine the best course of action to fix the customer's problems and formulate a plan to achieve their goals and business objectives, Szarka said.

That requires knowledge beyond the usual hardware and storage speeds and feeds. VARs must know about power systems, generators, UPS systems and power distribution. Using formulas based on server outputs is another easy way to assess energy consumption and avoid enlisting the help of an outside vendor, according to McDonald.

Eplus uses assessment tools from APC and Liebert to check out customer data centers. A Liebert tool performs basic analysis of heating, cooling and airflow and lets ePlus check out individual UPSes in the racks. Then there are tools to watch and capture SNMP traffic from servers. "We compile all that and generate a report that says 'this is where you're at, here's what you're using, and if you want to grow or consolidate, here are some challenges you will face,'" Melvin said.

There are also lower-tech techniques that can make a big impression on data center managers. "At one shop, I just grabbed a cardboard box, put an IR thermometer in it and held it about three feet high in back of the server island," said Melvin. "The temperature rose 50 degrees. Air was coming out at 105 degrees and that air was getting blown into the server tree two or three feet away. Just by baffling we can take care of that."

"Sometimes you can just turn the servers so they're facing each other versus blowing hot air at each other. You'd be surprised how often that happens," he added.

Accurate measurement of what happens now versus what could happen with new gear is key. "When we do site assessments, we go in and calculate the IT load, the current load, what their max load is going to be and match [it] with current UPS capacity. Nine times out of 10, the UPS is oversized, so we like positioning the APC product line because it's scalable," Mersch said.

Mersch also sees big opportunities in cooling units because almost every data center is leaky. "The trend is toward close-coupled cooling. We position the APC product for in-row cooling. We place it next to a high-density zone and next to a blade, which saves a tremendous amount of energy," he said.

Mersch uses APC's Data Center University website and other tools. Case studies have become particularly important because customers want to see results from a company that's similar to their own.

Another VAR, that did not wish to be quoted by name, prefers Raritan Inc.'s tools for assessing data center power consumption.

"Raritan makes intelligent PDUs [protocol data units] that can monitor the energy draw at the outlet level. We see a tremendous interest there. We've even used Raritan Dominion PX, and customers appreciate the ability to monitor and track the amount of power being used at the outlet level. You can easily tell how much power a certain group [of servers] is costing you," the VAR said.

Barbara Darrow, senior news director, contributed to this report.

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