Data centres – are they really sustainable?

By David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

For far too many people, data centres are like utilities – few people think about them unless they go wrong. However, change is afoot and data centres are being thrust into the spotlight. The already increasing demand for power and space has soared over the last two years, fuelled by a surge in digital data to facilitate connections for businesses in a home-working environment, for video streaming, increased social media activity and downloaded content for home entertainment. This coupled with the fast-growing trend for businesses to move their applications into the cloudmeans that estimates the data centre market could grow by 15 per cent a year between now and 2024, are very likely.

However, data centres and society’s appetite for all things digital comes at a cost. According to the International Energy Agency, data centres account for 1 per cent of the total electricity usage worldwide and approximately 2 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. As for the future, recent predictions state that the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for 3.2 percent of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025 and they could consume no less than a fifth of global electricity. And, by 2040, storing digital data is set to create 14 per cent of the world’s emissions.

This being said, we shouldn’t be overly alarmed because data centres are at the frontier in the fight against climate change and are already making great strides to mitigate their impact on the environment. Despite these statistics, data centres are already far more energy efficient in comparison to previous models of computing. Large efficient data centres are indeed the most effective way of providing for modern computing’s massive demands; one of the most efficient ways to deliver a unit of computing (energy per compute unit) is to put it in a large, modern, advanced data centre on a cloud platform.

Whilst a laser focus on sustainability is absolutely key to the future of the data centre sector, it is not new. For a long time, the industry has recognised the need to develop more efficient facilities with lower and lower Power Use Effectiveness (PUE) and Water Use Effectiveness (WUE) designs to ensure the right services are delivered to customers at the right cost. These key focuses have driven a more sustainable outcome for the industry overall.

Data centre providers continue to innovate, but also to broaden their view of sustainability - from the carbon impact of the physical construction of the buildings, right through to how

natural resources can be used such as rainwater harvesting, aquifers to access natural water resources, and even living walls on the exterior of facilities. The industry is working relentlessly to ensure facilities are operated, and maintained sustainably – working towards a smarter, cleaner way of ensuring advancements in technology continue to move society forwards whilst upholding the highest environmental and sustainability standards.

Developments in power and cooling have also enabled greater data centre efficiency, and today’s data centre providers are at the forefront of deploying some of the most sustainable buildings across the globe. As customers’ demands grow and increase their data centre space requirements, the industry is both duty-bound and regulated (the EU Commission set a “green deadline”, noting that the industry “should become climate neutral by 2030”) to lead innovations in how to make facilities as energy efficient as possible.

Maximising efficiency has always been a mainstay of the leading data centre providers, not only for the commercial benefits it passes on to customers, but also for minimising its environmental impact. The continued growth of the global data centre market is being driven by an explosion of cloud and internet services. However, this exponential growth in data traffic comes at the cost of significantly higher energy demands. Because of this, providers are increasingly committing to using 100% carbon-zero energy – powering sites solely with truly renewable energy from wind, solar and tidal sources.

Another way providers address their environmental impact is to increase the efficiency of cooling systems, which currently account for approximately 40 per cent of a data centre’s energy consumption. This is where the industry is improving sustainability by deploying innovative technologies such as independent fresh air cooling and using low energy indirect evaporative air solutions.

Whilst cooling is a vital part of keeping data centres operational, an Uptime Institute report estimated that in the US alone nearly 12.5 billion kW hours would be wasted by over-cooling in data centres and improper airflow management. This points to a wider trend of energy waste in the sector, including “zombie servers” and a significant amount of retired equipment being sent to landfill rather than recycled. To tackle this, providers should invest in comprehensive recycling schemes and use highly efficient UPS (uninterruptable power supply) systems which have the ability to hibernate parts of the system when they’re not being used.

We in the technology industry know that we are in the early stages of a global digital and data transformation, with data centres and networks at its core. It will become increasingly common for sophisticated everyday tasks to be carried out by computers using AI, without human intervention. Market demand has been growing year-on-year and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future as more devices connect to the internet and more data than ever is produced. And there is no getting away from the fact that data centres are they the lifeblood of modern civilisation – without them, society simply couldn’t function in this digital age. Whilst this is exciting, it is also a huge responsibility and challenge for providers to keep their data centres safe, secure, available, and of course, sustainable.

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