The Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory had been working on carbon capture and sequestration for at least 30 years before President Joe Biden’s executive orders on sustainability last year. One prime opportunity to cut energy consumption is at data centers, the demand for which is only expected to grow as government further embraces cloud computing and modernizes legacy IT. Currently they account for approximately 2% of total U.S. energy use, equivalent to 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building, according to DOE.
And that’s an improvement over six years ago, when the Data Center Optimization Initiative began. DCOI was a follow-on to the government’s first initiative, which revolved primarily around consolidation. The government had so many data centers, it literally couldn’t keep track of them all. Thousands of them were closed, and many more were optimized once government realized it would always need some, and pivoted its efforts.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done. In truth, that program does sunset on September 30 of this year,” said Jeff Chabot, federal strategy director at Schneider Electric. “But the last update and the last tweak did come from the Trump administration. So it did come from another administration; it’s probably not top of mind right now. But the General Services Administration had this great summit a couple of weeks back on sustainability for data centers going forward.”
Two things the federal government is looking at for its data center strategy going forward are better locations and greener technologies. For example, currently one of the biggest hubs for data centers is Loudoun County, Virginia. But the land and construction costs there are very expensive, and it gets warm during the summer time. It’s not an ideal location.
“But if you look at the infrastructure package that was passed this last year by President Biden’s administration, there are billions of dollars in broadband investment in there. Once other areas in our country get that broadband fed out to it, you’re going to be able to build data centers in places that you never thought of,” Chabot said. “And those places are going to be potentially in climates that might be cooler, where you can save a ton on some of the cooling costs, six months of the year, hypothetically, if you’re in Alaska, or if you’re in North Dakota, or Montana.”
That’s going to require federal agencies to, first and foremost, perform an inventory of their data centers. Where are they, and in what kind of facilities? Do they make sense to move? For example, Chabot said, the majority of Defense Department facilities were built around World War II. That’s probably not an optimal environment for a data center.
It’s also worth noting where you need data centers. Does your agency operate in the field, like DoD’s Forward Operating Bases or Customs and Border Protection’s ports of entry? Would the mission be better served locating the data closer to the edge to reduce latency and transmission time? And if so, how do you manage the required power? Is solar technology an option? What are your UPS battery requirements?
“With any federal agency the question is ‘what’s the best way to support the mission?’ If you’re at a Veterans Affairs hospital, and you need that patient data localized, it’s going to be out on that edge where people can consume it very quickly,” Chabot said. “Every application is different, so for one agency to put something in the cloud or in a colocated data center might make sense, based on mission. For another agency, it might not . And there are certain programs that you might never put in the cloud for security reasons.”
Many times, it’s safe to say that administrative systems, like email or payroll, are safe to put in the cloud. Mission critical systems, on the other hand, need to be carefully considered.
And aside from mission incentives, there are financial incentives for optimizing data centers as well. If an agency consolidates from five data centers down to two, it’s saving money on rent , equipment and maintenance, power costs, and other facility-related overhead, like landscaping or even snow removal. It also has to employ fewer data center operations specialists.
And costs aside, there are also the federal government’s green initiatives.
“No matter what, the data center is going to be the biggest hog on the power grid,” Chabot said. “But there are certain ways that you can help minimize that. Using the right data center management tools, doing the right monitoring of your power, you can do it smartly. You can certainly save a lot of money. It’s really the software tools that are going to allow you to do that.”