Modern on-premises computing solutions bear virtually no resemblance to those of decades past. For a long time, the definition of on-premises computing was a mainframe in an air-conditioned room that was just a little bit larger than a living room in a typical house.
Those days are over. Computer rooms have given way to data centers bigger than a mall, and one beefy mainframe has been largely replaced (although mainframes are still used) with rows of computer racks in refrigerator-sized cabinets.
Those servers require administration and maintenance. But they are also designed to be largely automated, with little human intervention required. Much of the automation to run and maintain a data center comes from data center infrastructure management (DCIM) software, which is specifically designed to do what DCIM stands for — help organizations manage their data center infrastructure.
The first DCIM software solution was called IntraVista, released by Sunbird Software in 2007. It offered basic tracking and management of IT infrastructure from a central location. Since then, the market has expanded to more than 100 players, including such data center giants as Schneider Electric, IBM, and CA Technologies.
DCIM software provides a centralized view of all the elements that make up a complete data center, such as compute servers, storage, networking equipment, and cooling systems. It is used to monitor the performance of the data center, identify potential problems, fix and address the problems whenever possible, and optimize its efficiency.
DCIM's Weakness: Sustainability
DCIM software has matured considerably over the past 16 years, but there is one area of shortcoming: sustainability efforts. DCIM is good for monitoring power use and finding hot spots of excess consumption, but it is lacking in helping achieve sustainability goals, simply because the concept of sustainability is so new it hasn't made its way into the software yet.
"DCIM is behind, and there's a tremendous first-mover opportunity for DCIM that makes sustainability, carbon accounting, and path to net zero a robust module. We are way beyond just power and PUE but are at a great place to start," said Sean Farney, head of data center strategy for data centers in the Americas at JLL, which operates more than 900 data centers worldwide.
Not surprisingly, Greg Johnson, director of Data Center Software Sales for North America at Schneider Electric, begs to differ. He says that over the course of developing DCIM software, vendors (including Schneider) decided to associate those data center assets with a power consumption model, and then understand which devices are consuming excessive power and make smarter decisions.
"Asset managers [like DCIM] are extremely important, primarily to make sure that your compute and your cooling infrastructure is being run as efficiently as possible. And what you may find is some inefficient older assets that you didn't know you had that perhaps are contributing to a higher power consumption model than you knew. So asset management is still germane to ESG and sustainability," he said.
Johnson added that efficient cooling is extremely difficult because data centers have traditional perimeter cooling that was designed for a worst-case scenario — the hottest day of the year or the highest load — but that doesn't always run all out.
"New cooling tools allow customers to throttle their legacy CRAC [computer room air conditioning] and CRAH [computer room air handler] units to match the actual compute load. And we have gotten metrics from our clients that say, 'I'm getting a 38% reduction overall in my power consumption just managing cooling tighter than I have,'" he said.
Roy Illsley, chief analyst with Omdia, concurred, saying some vendors have developed very good stand-alone tools for sustainability but nothing as part of a DCIM package. Schneider has what it calls the Data Center Lifecycle CO2e Calculator as a stand-alone tool, but it is not a part of the company's EcoStruxure DCIM software. "Is this part of a DCIM and generating the sort of reports needed? No, not yet. But it is in the plans for the vendors," he said.
Farney said that 96% of JLL's global top 50 customers have board-level sustainability goals, but only 19% of them have publicly committed and funded plans for the execution and delivery of these goals. The reason for this execution gap is twofold: 1) this is hard work and, 2) they don't know how or where to start.
"Because you can't manage what you don't measure, we advise clients that the first step in their sustainability journey is the establishment of a carbon baseline — both embodied and operational — or carbon accounting," he said.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) is jumping on the sustainability bandwagon with a program called COOLERCHIPS, an acronym for Cooling Operations Optimized for Leaps in Energy, Reliability, and Carbon Hyperefficiency for Information Processing Systems.
The DoE recently awarded $40 million in grants to 15 vendors and university labs as part of a program with the goal of reducing power consumption for data center cooling to just 5% of their total energy consumption.
Forty million dollars is lunch money for Nvidia or Intel, but Farney believes every bit helps. "The program will undoubtedly accelerate the development and adoption of revolutionary new approaches like direct-to-chip and immersion cooling. More than half [of the projects] involve liquid cooling. No surprise given that the liquid cooling market is growing at a CAGR of 15% and that some of the largest data center players in the world have all publicly committed to the new tech," he said.
What to Do
So what can be done while the DCIM developers add sustainability functions to their apps? Farney said current DCIM software is not totally useless and can be used to start measuring consumption now.
"The first step for sustainability is what I call carbon accounting," he said. "You need to account for consumption, water power, all these different things, and tracking this information. You can't steer your efforts to be more efficient unless you measure your consumption. So I think it all starts with data and measurement of data."
Illsley agrees, stating that the software now is able to generate views of how an organization is using the energy, the power, and everything that goes along with it, and it can share those statistics with other people in the organization to build a workload map.
"That allows teams to have two pieces of paper with the information, so they can then draw the lines and connect the dots themselves. Not at the very detailed level, but at a higher level that at least they can sort of understand to see if there is something they can potentially do," said Illsley.
Johnson said existing DCIM software can get the job done, just have a plan to instrument everything. "If you think it needs to be instrumented [and] managed, have a good process plan in place. And make sure you partner with a vendor that has experience in not only sustainability but building data centers with DCIM in the monitoring tool set," he said.