RFID Can Reduce Data-Center Energy Consumption

By Mark Roberti

The Internet and an insatiable demand for online connectivity are fueling explosive growth in energy consumption by server farms, but RFID-enabled sensors can help.


The New York Times ran a front-page article on Sunday, Sept. 23, titled “Power, Pollution and the Internet.” According to the article, “data centers [in the United States] used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year.”

RFID Journal recently reported that data centers worldwide were expected to consume 19 percent more energy during the next 12 months than they had throughout the past year, according to a report released in September 2011 by DatacenterDynamics, a London-based research firm (see RFID Energy-Management Systems for Data Centers). The greatest increases in energy use are expected to occur in major U.S. and European markets. A significant number of the organizations queried by DatacenterDynamics predicted that increased energy costs will impact their data-center operations during the next 12 months.

The Times article focuses on the problems of 24-hour uptime and the underutilization of servers. The story reports that Gartner, a technology research firm, surveyed a large sample of data centers and found that typical utilizations ran between 7 percent and 12 percent. That’s an appallingly low rate, but it’s not the only problem. Many data centers are overcooled, since IT departments don’t want to risk infuriating customers by having servers overheat and go down. In fact, some estimates are that for every megawatt directed toward powering a data center, another 0.5 megawatt to 1 megawatt is consumed in maintaining proper temperature levels. Because it’s impossible to know the temperature at any one location within a room, most companies simply turn the air conditioning up high.

There are wired environmental sensors that can track temperatures around server racks, but these are expensive to install. Wireless monitoring systems that utilize radio frequency identification and sensor technologies can be installed quickly and less expensively. They can gather environmental information in real time, in order to help companies better manage energy consumption within a data center.

California’s Franchise Tax Board, in Sacramento, deployed an RFID-based environmental-monitoring system in 2008, and saw cooling costs drop by nearly 75 percent. Based on the savings achieved, the state’s Department of General Services (DGS) equipped 12 of its data centers with the same RFID temperature-control system (see California Data Centers Expect to Cut Energy Usage By 75 Percent).

Microsoft has installed more than 700 sensors to track temperatures on individual racks and shelves within its data centers worldwide, enabling it to monitor the temperature or humidity levels around every rack of servers. Software developed internally by Microsoft Research allows sensor data to be visualized on a map, on what the company calls the Web-based DC Genome Explorer system.

The map displays the data center’s layout, highlighting any hot zones in real time. It also stores information that can be used for business analytics in the event that Microsoft chooses to evaluate the data center’s condition at a particular time in the past (see Microsoft Uses Wireless Sensors to Track Data-Center Temperatures)

In that way, Microsoft is alerted if the temperature threshold is exceeded at any specific location. The company uses this information to evaluate the conditions throughout the data center, and to adjust temperatures or fan speeds. What’s more, a server that becomes too hot can be powered down, or data can be redirected to a different server.

At our RFID in High Tech event, being held in Silicon Valley on Oct. 11-12, 2012, I will provide a presentation explaining how these systems can cut energy costs and deliver a quick return on investment. In addition, I’ll highlight some off-the-shelf solutions currently available. It’s a session that no IT manager can afford to miss.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.