Vigilent Stays Watchful on Data Center Cooling

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With energy costs rising, “green” efforts taking hold, and capital expenditures (CapEx) and operating expenses (OpEx) under scrutiny, there is a growing need for tools that monitor and automatically adjust energy use in the data center. Vigilent, a growing company in the East Bay area of San Francisco, provides intelligent and automatic energy management to buildings and data centers. The company renamed itself in 2011, creating the moniker “Vigilent” from the common adjective “vigilent,” which means intelligently keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.

The company was founded in 2004 as Federspiel Controls by Clifford Federspiel, who today is President and CTO. As Vigilent, the company continues to deploy its systems and technology and expand its customer base worldwide by helping building owners and data center operators optimize their cooling through its smart systems deployed in mostly mission critical facilities.

“We work with data centers, telco central offices, and the kind of places where electronics of one sort of another, such as servers, switches or routers, are producing heat that has to be addressed,” said Federspiel.

The Vigilent technology  has been recognized with a number of industry awards. This month, the Uptime Institute recognized Vigilent and NTT America with the “2012 Green Enterprise IT – Facility Product Deployment” honor for a project in two NTT America legacy data centers in San Jose, Calif. and Ashburn, Va. The project, which deployed 2,700 wireless sensors in the two facilities, achieved a 20 percent reduction on energy used for cooling and a 8.8 million pounds annual reduction of CO2 emissions.

“We produce a system that is a combination of state-of-the-art wireless technology that provides data to smart software,” Federspiel said. “The predictive learning software allows for automatic optimization of cooling assets.”

Energy Management to Produce Savings

The two biggest energy users in the data center are the IT gear and cooling units. “Cooling can be a third to a half of power consumption,” said Federspiel, the holder of several patents and author of more than 50 papers on topics such as HVAC and CRAC control and cooling optimization. “So it is a really significant electric load in the data center.

“Cooling is often operated in a way that is not particularly efficient, because there is not sufficient information or systems available generally to do so,” he added. “People do the conservative thing. They run it always on, always cold all the time. Without an automation system, you just cannot risk doing it any other way, so it makes perfect sense to do it that way.”

Vigilent provides the “smarts” through wireless sensors deployed throughout the white space, connected to a network and control system that automatically adjusts cooling to adapt to changing conditions inside a live working data center.

“Cooling can be turned off, or turned down, in a way that is consistent with, and regulated by, the operator of the data center’s policies,” Federspiel added.

An interesting aspect of the system is the ability to model an action and the capability of the system to learn. For example, a manager can use the software to run a model to see what would happen if he or she turns off a cooling unit in an area, and find out what temperatures in what places are going to change.

Also, like the human capacity for learning, the system remembers and learns from events. “The software sees events happen and it learns from those,” Federspiel explained. “It has a way to figure out what is going to be the effect of making a change to any cooling unit. And if something changes in the data center, such as revisions to the layout, load, or colo customers with different gear who comes and go, it’s really important to have a system that has this learning capability. It can make decisions that are accurate. What we have done is build that capability into the software so that it can understand cause and effect, even as cause and effect changes with time.”

Vigilent has a widespread customer base, and gets similar outcomes, even in different kinds of deployments with varying sizes of white space and different kinds of cooling systems from chilled water to direct-expansion systems. (In a direct-expansion system, the evaporator is in direct contact with the air stream.) They deployed in multiple Verizon facilities of different sizes as well as working with the State of California data centers, which range from the biggest state data center called “Gold Camp” to a server room of 700 square feet. “We achieved good savings across the board for all of them,” Federspiel said.

NTT America and Vigilent Project

NTT America, a subsidiary of NTT Communications headquartered in Japan, runs a U.S. network of data centers, offering managed hosting and managed services including cloud infrastructure and services. Tarif Abboushi, VP of Data Center Infrastructure, NTT America, is responsible for uptime in all NTT America facilities, and worked with Vigilent to deploy their system in the NTT data centers in Sterling and San Jose. These facilities are large, legacy data centers built in 1999-2000.

While the NTT America project with Vigilent had significant cost savings, Abboushi said, there were multiple other benefits as well. Since NTT America has colocation customers with a variety of gear of different ages, placed in live data centers, it was practical to implement a system that did not require layout changes or other intrusive measures. Abboushi said the sensors were deployed in a week and they were collecting baseline data right away.

“These are large legacy data centers filled with clients, live. We didn’t have much leeway to change or redesign,” Abboushi said. “From a practical perspective, with a data center full of customers, we cannot do anything that is invasive, intrusive and we didn’t want any downtime.”

“To my pleasant surprise, I saw how fast and how unobtrusive it was to deploy the Vigilent system. We had 2,700 temperature sensors in both data centers. Each deployment, in each data center, was completed in one week. It was a dream. It was just ‘bang!’ and it was there.”

At present, NTT America is running Vigilent as a stand-alone monitoring and control system, but the Vigilent team can integrate its system into building management systems at customer request.

Other benefits include the decreased use of cooling equipment leads to longer use and less maintenance, i.e  moving parts that are moving less results in less wear and tear and have fewer maintenance needs. Also, the automatic nature of the system removes manual labor from the mix, saving personnel time for more high value tasks.

Because the system allows for careful usage of cooling units, once deployed, the system effectively increased the data center cooling capacity, according to Abboushi. The system identifies areas where cooling is less necessary, like space up near the ceiling for example. This results in a couple of benefits. If units are shut down when not in use, the data center has more redundancy of cooling units (without the CapEx) and the heat exchangers perform more efficiently.

“In both of these data centers, and in many others where we’ve installed the system, the system will essentially allow temps – where it doesn’t really matter very much – to get warmer. So, up by the ceiling, it gets warmer. A consequence of that is the return air temp (the air getting drawn back into the air conditioners) is warmer. This increases the capacity of the heat exchanger in the unit to remove heat. And a typical rule of thumb is a 2-3 percent increase in return temperature,” Federspiel said.

“So once you are able to do that, when the load increases, you may not need to add another air conditioner as soon as you would otherwise. So it lowers the CapEx for an expanding data center,” he added.

For NTT America, the success of the project in the United States has attracted attention at corporate headquarters in Japan. “There are more heads nodding,” Abboushi said. “Japan has a energy crisis since they’ve decommissioned nuclear plants. I can foresee that there will be more and more deployments of Vigilent’s and other systems that optimize power use and increase efficiency.”

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About the Author

Colleen Miller is a journalist and social media specialist. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, with her most recent work dedicated to the online space. Colleen covers the data center industry, including topics such as modular, cloud and storage/big data.

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