How to build a green data centre

Today, the digitalisation of almost everything we see and touch is transforming many industries including banking, retail, manufacturing as well as enabling the rise of social media and more. What many people don’t know is that data centres, the infrastructure behind connected technology, sit at the heart the digital revolution. And as more of our lives become digitally led, the data centre industry continues to grow rapidly. By David Watkins, special projects director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

However, people are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of data centres. Swedish researcher Anders Andrae predicts that by 2025, data centres will amount to ICT’s largest share of global electricity production1. Other reports suggest that data centres currently use between 200 and 500 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year2. Even at the lower end of this estimation, this accounts for one per cent of the global electricity demand: more than the energy consumption of some entire countries - and surpassing that of some other energy hungry industries.

Because of these alarming statistics, for anyone involved in the build of data centres, sustainability is a major concern - for meeting the needs of today’s businesses - and engineering sustainable, energy-efficient data centres should be on the agenda of data centre providers and businesses around the world.

The definition of a green data centre is one that “uses resources more efficiently and has less environmental impact”. So, the key question is how can sustainable data centres be designed and built at large-scale without compromising operations and reliability? There are three areas to look at – space, power and cooling.

Space:

Building a sustainable data centre means building facilities that don’t have a lasting, detrimental impact on the planet.

A good place to start in ensuring sustainability is to follow BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards. BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of categories, ranging from energy to ecology. Each of these categories is important to address the most influential factors, including low impact design and carbon emissions reduction; design durability and resilience; adaption to climate change; and ecological value and biodiversity protection. BREEAM will verify a building’s performance by comparing it to sustainability benchmarks.

As well as the commitment to meeting BREEAM specifications, a modular build methodology can help drive up utilisation and maximise efficiency - both from an operational and cost perspective. And, the best providers don’t just look at the site itself, but adjunct areas too, for example, how staff travel to and from a campus, and other similar considerations.

Power:

One of the most difficult areas to account for is the energy consumed and heat generated by data centre facilities. The constantly processing computers and servers that make life online possible, have long been considered detrimental to the environment. An added complication is that many businesses have exacting corporate and social responsibility targets, some of which include their outsourced data centre power consumption and carbon emissions in calculations of their own carbon footprint, so they need to know if their data centres are powered by renewable energy sources.

As a result, how much power is used and energy sources are often under the spotlight. But the good news is that today, the cost of renewable green power is increasingly cheaper than brown power. Buyers can negotiate long-term fixed-price or stable-price contracts for energy. This means energy costs from companies using renewables are likely to be more stable and offer more reliable pricing than fossil fuels – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.

Cooling:

Traditionally, keeping data centres cool has been a power hunger necessity for servers to operate at optimum temperatures. However, new technological developments and modern cooling techniques such as accepting higher server “air on” temperatures and deploying hot or cold aisle containment, means that data centres can generally be kept cool using much less power so facilities can be far more efficient and produce less carbon emissions.

Supporting this viewpoint are reports which show that infrastructure efficiency has improved by 16 per cent since 2014³, demonstrating that where steps are taken to improve issues like heating and cooling, cost savings can be made.

Everyone’s a winner:

For many businesses across industries, “green” has historically meant “expensive”. However, this perception is simply no longer true.

Perhaps the clearest return on investment for companies that invest in sustainability strategies is in cost savings. Helping to ensure that the internet, data use and smart technologies aren’t negatively impacting on the environment is a crucial tenet of fuelling a more sustainable world for the long-term. A connected planet, where remote working and e-commerce are the norm and public services are delivered online, is likely to significantly help reduce pollution.

Greening the data centre means designing the most energy efficient facilities possible, using the very latest techniques and engineering infrastructure to provide efficient power and cooling and fuelling facilities with renewable energy sources.

It is possible for data centres to be much more sustainable through the engineering infrastructure, as well as the efficiency of the servers deployed within the facilities. As designs evolve, data centres will consume less energy, generate less heat and be able to operate at higher temperatures – bringing costs down for providers and customers alike. What’s good for the planet is also good for business.

For those working in technology, it’s long been recognised that data centres are the backbone of the digital economy, but Coronavirus saw the industry thrust into the public eye on a much wider scale. We’ve seen data centre operators deemed to be critical workers, and witnessed debate into whether all data centres should be classed as Critical National Infrastructure. By Darren Watkins, Managing Director for VIRTUS Data Centres
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