Executive Corner

LEED versus PUE

by Christian Dawson  • 

At ServInt, we take our commitment to the environment very seriously. If you read the ServInt Source you’ve seen me periodically write on our green initiatives, and I am happy to report that some of the efforts our industry is making seem to be having a positive effect. EPA predictions of data center power usage made back in 2007 have not come to pass. This is in no small part due to increased efficiencies in data centers and server technology.

It is perfectly reasonable for people to be skeptical of green initiatives in data centers. The phrase “lipstick on a pig” is practically custom-built to describe data center efficiency initiatives. Energy consumption is a growing environmental and geopolitical problem, and data centers just plain use an incredible amount of energy. But let’s get real – if something new gets built these days and it creates jobs and commerce around it, the chances are good that it’s either Internet based or has a large Internet component. That requires infrastructure. And for those of you thinking that ‘the cloud’ is going to solve all that I hate to burst your bubble, but ‘the cloud’ is still computers plugged into power outlets living in a datacenter, just like before. And an incredible number of additional computers are getting added every second.

So since data centers aren’t going anywhere and are just getting bigger, it’s better that infrastructure folks focus on efficiency and on doing what they can to make their footprint as small as possible. But how do customers know their servers are housed and powered in facilities as Green as hosting providers promise?

When people think of green initiatives in data centers within the United States they usually think of the LEED program, run by the U.S. Green Building Council.  LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”. The USGBC people who run LEED have done a great job of getting their names out there, and you see a lot of building projects these days that tout Silver, Gold & Platinum LEED building projects.

USGPC does some great work, but people have started using LEED certification as shorthand for whether data centers are ‘green’ or not, and that’s really a mistake.  LEED programs have historically only certified new construction. So if you’re building a brand new data center, LEED is great and provides a set of guidelines to aspire to, but if your servers are housed in a facility that was retrofitted as data center space—as many data centers are—then LEED certification does not apply. USGBC is trying to fix this with their LEED for Existing Buildings rating system, but LEED-EB only works for certain types of buildings and ends up being—along with LEED as well—fairly process- rather than results-oriented.

Simply put, LEED is a set of green building best practices, but does not measure the actual environmental impact of the data center after it is up and running. That’s why I don’t tend to pay attention to LEED, as cool as it is. Instead I go straight to the PUE number for a data center space and the efforts taken to lower that number.

PUE stands for Power Usage Effectiveness and was developed by an organization called The Green Grid.

PUE is a results-oriented metric that quantifies how efficient a data center is when it comes to cooling and infrastructure. And aside from the electricity used directly to run the servers, when we’re talking about power usage in a data center, we’re talking about cooling.

We get asked whether we’re LEED certified in our data centers. We’re not, simply because our data centers are housed in facilities that predate LEED. But a good PUE-optimized data center in a repurposed building can trump a Gold certified datacenter if it’s done right. This is part of the reason we have partnered with Coresite for our main private data center builds in Northern Virginia, DC, and LA. Every Coresite facility maintains a low PUE number with some as low as 1.3.

There’s nothing wrong with LEED, it just doesn’t measure everybody. And it’s an indicator of process, not results. For results you need to ask about PUE.

Photo by Tambako the Nice Jaguar

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Comments
  1. OK Max, I'm sold on the relevance of PUE to the LEED process and I thank you for the clarification. It has still been our experience that the LEED EB:O&M, which isn't ONLY a PUE test, can be out of reach for even responsibly run older facilities, and in those circumstances just a look at the PUE can tell volumes, and that alone was my attempted point.
    Christian Dawson /
  2. Christian, I want to echo ---'s comment. [name removed by editor] I believe your blog post is misleading because the LEED for Existing Buildings rating system (LEED EB:O&M), expressly uses PUE to calculate its energy-related points (via the EPA's ENERGY STAR portfolio manager benchmarking tool). It does not use a theoretical model but the actual data center process loads for the past year. The second largest block of points under LEED EB:O&M is determined by how building occupants commute...this too is based on actual usage patterns rather than, for example, whether there is a bike rack or electric car charging station. Essentially, an existing Data Center can get LEED and ONLY an existing Data Center with a good PUE can get a good LEED score.
    Max Perelman /
  3. Good work! That's excellent. I certainly think that LEED does good things. My goal was to make sure people understood the difference between PUE and LEED. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Christian Dawson /
  4. Great article. We just earned a data center in California LEED Platinum WITHOUT the purchase of renewable energy credits. Data Centers CAN earn LEED, they just need to perform beyond the PUE, in other areas of healthy building performance. Improved air quality, Janitorial, Alternative transportation, etc. reducing the overall footprint that the building generates, not just by the energy performance, or high efficiency equipment, but the all around performance of the buildings operations, making it a healthier, more sustainable, more productive environment for its occupants. Cheers! -- --name and contact info redacted by the editor--
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Christian Dawson

Christian Dawson

Chief Operating Officer, ServInt

Christian Dawson has been with ServInt since 1998 and has helped it grow into one of the most innovative Cloud providers in the world. As ServInt’s COO, he has spearheaded its green initiative, and drives ServInt’s efforts in fighting for consumer privacy and consumer protections. He does so in part as founder and Chairman of an industry trade association called the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition).

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