January 23, 2007

Looking Forward: Power, Cooling, and the Data Center

In the future, we may look back on 2006 as the year that power consumption, cooling, and energy efficiency in the data center ceased being a back-burner issue for IT and facilities managers and elevated itself to become one of the forefront, if not leading, issues for many. While those “in the know” have always been aware of HVAC and power distribution limitations, until recently it has not been a noticeable issue. During the past several months, we have seen vendors focus on the issue of energy efficiency through various initiatives including HP’s Smart Cooling, EMC’s Energy Efficiency Tool, Sun’s Cool Threads, the latest Energy Star Specification, and VMware’s energy utility rebates. With the competitive attention now being brought to bear, we expect to see this topic remain at an elevated level during 2007 as vendors line up their competitive differentiation and definitions of what exactly energy efficiency is all about.

Although much of the cost cutting and resource gutting by CIOs and CFOs during the first part of the twenty-first century focused on infrastructure consolidation and headcount reductions, it didn’t take too long for the impact of $75/bbl oil and 22¢/kwh electricity to reach into the data center. At the same time, rather ironically, all the focus on server and storage consolidation combined with ever denser form factors such as blades has changed the heat generation and dissipation characteristics of the data center. Thus, the limitation of physical reality has once again impeded progress in our collective journey to a virtual IT existence. Yet there are many similarities and lessons to be drawn from the “consolidate, simplify, and virtualize” mantra of the past few years. Just as inefficiencies in server and storage utilization have led to consolidations featuring closely monitored virtualization schemes, we are now witnessing the same opportunity with cooling and power consumption.

Over-provisioning of cooling and power is inherently just as inefficient as over-provisioning anything else. If machine rooms are continuously cooled to meet peak loads, then a lot of kilowatt-hours are going to waste. Likewise, if the actual power being drawn by equipment is less than the wiring supports and designed to a worst-case scenario that is unlikely to be achieved, there will be unnecessary breaker panels and conduit being installed. From a financial and operational perspective, targeting the cooling where it is needed, only when it is needed, just makes sense; anything emitted beyond this is simply waste that impacts the bottom line of the business. Similarly, electrical circuits that are underutilized represent an underperforming investment.

Although initiatives in the marketplace vary in their impact, we believe that the players who can provide dynamic realtime monitoring and control of the power consumption and cooling envelopes will be the long-term winners in this space. At present HP probably has the most comprehensive offering; however, other vendors certainly have many requisite pieces of the puzzle and one cannot overlook the expertise of IBM’s Global Services to pull together just about any solution given enough money. At a minimum, a combination of systems management, facilities management, myriad sensors, and realtime data acquisition and control software will be required to achieve enhanced data center power and cooling efficiency. In addition, the knowledge, planning, and wherewithal to pull this together cannot be underestimated. But despite the higher barrier to entry to play effectively in this space, we believe the opportunity is too great for most systems or management vendors to overlook.

For systems management vendors such as HP, IBM, BMC, CA and others, the myriad sensors necessary to monitor environmental conditions represent an opportunity to extend management solutions to reach beyond the traditional bounds of IT. The dividing line between IT and facilities is clearly blurring in the data center. This disruption in thinking highlights the latent opportunity.
We expect to see more initiatives where vendors such as Sun, VMware, EMC, IBM, et al will work with utilities to implement creative programs to help organizations reduce data center power consumption. Besides reducing the power bill, the reduced demand for data center power forestalls the need for additional generation capacity on the power grid and is a win-win scenario for the utility and ratepayers alike. In addition, environmental factors such as air quality and ambient noise levels will likely emerge as drivers as well, as organizations rationalize and change how they approach office/work space internally.

Organizations will reap these benefits incrementally as they refresh their technology over its lifecycle, and in some cases, the savings might encourage earlier refresh of equipment that may still be functional, but less efficient. Of course, a significant upgrade of the data center as a whole would bring more ROI sooner. If power utilities were to embrace power savings programs for computer technologies, like many do with older household appliances, lighting, heating, and cooling equipment, the potential to enhance the energy efficiency of the data center would grow significantly. Hopefully, in 2007 this is exactly the kind of market place behavior we will see as chipmakers, drive manufacturers, systems vendors, storage specialists, systems management companies, and utilities all work towards improving the efficiency of the physical operation of the data center.

January 18, 2007

HP's Customer Dis-Service

Ahhh the joys of owning a PC. I purchased an HP Pavilion 7495.it back in October when my laptop motherboard crashed and burned. I’d been putting off buying because I was waiting for an AMD chip to come out but I bit the bullet and bought the system because I was in dire need of a PC and couldn’t wait any longer. The day I brought it home, I installed it, and then paranoid little nerd that I am, I went straight to the Microsoft Update site and started downloading critical updates. Things went well for awhile, but then something went very wrong. The pc went into a continuous reboot loop after I’d installed all the updates.

Seeing as there were really no apps installed yet, I did an F10 and started over. Because I was in a hurry, I let it go. Flash forward to January. I did a backup of my system (still paranoid) and thought – well, maybe there was a glitch – I’ll try this again. No glitch. The same thing happened. And I couldn’t boot in safe mode and any other fixes I tried all told me that the computer was hopelessly corrupt. I did the F10 maneuver again, but this time, I decided I’d get to the root of the problem before I put all my apps back on the system. So I went to the Microsoft site to see if I could get online support, and it told me to contact the PC’s manufacturer.

So I called HP in Italy and sat on hold for 4 minutes until the lady came back and told me to call back later because all the lines were busy. Nice. So I went online to HP and got an online techie. Alvin P is what he told me his name was. So I wrote out an explanation of what had happened, and what I had tried. I explained that I needed to know which one of the updates was not getting along with HP’s version of XP Media Center Edition 2005 and what I could do to get around it. His response – you have to do each update manually to figure out which one doesn’t work. Mind you there are 63 of them according to Microsoft. Mind you this has been a problem since October, and you’d think I wouldn’t be the only one with this problem, so maybe someone at HP and/or Microsoft had worked it out by then and could tell me. Nope.

So in the end, this is HP’s response – go figure it out by yourself. AND THEN WHAT!!!????? So once I know which patch is damning my system – which it will do again – then I’ll have to do F10 AGAIN and install all the other patches again and then hope that was the only patch giving me a hard time. However, that only isolates the problem. It doesn’t solve it. What do I do about the bad patch? Skip over it and leave my system vulnerable to whatever that patch was supposed to fix? I think what really annoys me most is that Alvin clearly didn’t go digging through any databases to see what might have happened previously. Nope he just blew me off with – well, you have to install each one and see what happens!!!

I did warn him that I was an industry analyst and if that was his last and best answer then I was irritated enough to blog. He said I would just have to wade through each patch and figure out for myself what was the problem. Now that’s fine if you’re a semi-literate person who likes technology. But what about HP’s thousands and thousands of customers who aren’t particularly literate? What would they do at this point? It makes me think twice about purchasing another HP system.

January 16, 2007

Compliance 2007: The King's Sox Had Holes

For most of 2006 the term compliance was synonymous with the dreaded U.S. Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) law. The overwhelming majority of large organizations, especially multi-nationals, found themselves spending oodles of money on myriad projects all earmarked as necessary for “SOX Compliance.” Major trading countries and regions all took notice of how U.S. organizations were scurrying about trying to ensure that their top executives would not be clad in orange jumpsuits and headed to jail. Some countries such as Japan decided to go on the offensive and put the world on notice that they too would be passing legislation designed to bolster investor confidence and mend the sins of past malfeasance on the part of several executives and organizations.
Organizations have been facing a maze of regulations for quite some time; furthermore, it was not uncommon for the regulations to be technology-neutral in their guidance and perhaps even conflicting in their requirements. Laws and regulations could be based on the jurisdiction: federal (country level), state or provincial, or even municipal. Examples include the California disclosure law popularly known as SB 1386 and the Canadian Personal Information Protection Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Organizations also found that they would be subject to regulations based on their size (revenue, market capitalization, number of employees), or their industry. For example, in health care there is HIPAA, more properly known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996; in financial services there is GLBA, or the Gramm Leach Bliley act of 1996; and for power and energy there are regulations promulgated by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) that effect Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
An unintended result of this web of regulations is that top management is not necessarily totally clear on what the organization must do in terms of personnel issues, policies, and procedures. This can leave IT as the tail on the business dog. Top management must clearly describe business goals and objectives so that IT can implement them. In the case of compliance, IT is not able to sequentially address each and every rule, regulation, and law. Rather IT must employ IT as a tool for governance of the organization. IT, information security, and privacy technology in particular can be employed to enforce standards within the operation of the organization. These standards when taken together will ensure that the IT infrastructure the organization and its top management rely on to provide accurate and current information actually does so. IT can also be judiciously employed to ensure that the organization can function in spite of unforeseen interruptions whether they are acts of nature, intentional acts by adversaries, or accidents.
We are cautiously optimistic about the compliance outlook for 2007. We feel fairly confident in saying that U.S. law makers have been made aware of the negative effects of SOX and have hopefully taken notice of heightened IPO activity in financial markets outside the U.S. such as Hong Kong. This is likely to translate to a loosening of the perceived SOX stranglehold. The lack of a successful SOX prosecution may also be a factor emboldening executives to take a commonsense approach to running the organization which entails stated goals and objectives with respect to governance and which translates business objectives into IT standards, policies, and procedures that ensure the integrity of the IT infrastructure, which was the core intent of SOX in the first place.