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The modern data centre is the beating heart of the world’s economy and demand for data is at an all-time high. With distributed computing increasing annually and the demand for hand-held data consumption and digital transformation across all aspects of modern life continuing unabated, the ways in which new data centres are being designed and constructed is evolving. Further, there is increasing awareness of the impact of digital infrastructure and climate change on our communities. As such, we are now going beyond just location and footprint, and seeing shifts in how data centres and the materials used to construct them are sourced, designed, used and decommissioned. We are creating an entirely new type of data centre, designed with sustainability and scalability in mind.
In recent years, data centre operators have taken steps to enhance energy efficiency with the installation of innovative cooling processes, a greater focus on preserving natural resources, better monitoring of their emissions and adoption of renewable energy sources, with some operators already running on 100% green electricity. However, as the clamour for reducing emissions within our supply chains increases, and with it the likelihood of increased regulation, we must consider how data centre operators can innovate to ensure that every new facility is designed for a decarbonised, interconnected future.
Sustainable by design
Modern construction techniques allow operators to repurpose existing materials and recyclable content, such as steel or aggregates, within site foundations to reduce the waste involved in construction. Purchasing sustainably sourced materials from local suppliers will reduce an operation’s carbon footprint. Focusing your design on energy efficiency and the standard of building materials used, as well as the management of natural resources, will help create a facility that takes the wider environment into consideration.
Closed-loop systems have gone a long way towards reducing the amount of fresh water consumed within data centres, allowing water to be continually treated and recirculated for cooling purposes. Mapping location temperatures and tracking local weather patterns can assist operators in monitoring their systems more carefully, reducing evaporative cooling. Rainwater taken from the vast roof of the data centre to be treated and used for other purposes. There is now no reason modern data centres should need to continually draw on fresh supplies of water in the volumes they once did. This is beneficial for locations affected by drought, and in terms of water scarcity more broadly.
Temperature control is another area of focus for sustainable design. Data centres are now far more likely to be kept at around 26 degrees, compared to the fridge-like conditions that were used previously. Hot and cold aisle containment allows operators to channel and control the heat within a data centre far more effectively. The more densely packed the racks are, the more efficient in-rack cooling will be in comparison to cooling the space around each server.
The rise of data centre activism
As humanity's reliance on digital products and services continues to grow, the need for physical infrastructure to enable this will also need to increase. Yet with restrictions on new data centre builds on greenbelt land, data centre operators must remember that existing brownfield sites are ripe for remediation. Operators have the expertise and capability to ensure that the site is responsibly managed, old equipment is properly disposed of, and any environmental contamination is closely monitored. In this approach, data centre development can set the stage for a net positive impact by remediating existing issues while creating growth opportunities.
Retro-fitting existing sites can be especially beneficial where there is increased demand for Edge Computing services with low-latency requirements, such as industrial IoT and autonomous vehicles. This type of data centre is often much smaller, can be located on the outskirts of cities, and is able to offer the speedy and accessible edge services the modern city demands, without impacting the local community. They can also be combined with other services, such as Asset Lifecycle Management (ALM), offering a way to fill redundant space with a complementary and much-needed service. Of course, with the importance of data sovereignty there will always be a need for those city centre facilities, but operators can take the initiative now to reduce the impact on over-congested locations whilst also achieving the maximum utilisation of their spaces.
Bringing the customer with you
Even if you design and build the most efficient data centre, if customers install old and inefficient servers it will impact the overall efficiency of the facility. Fortunately, customers are more familiar with sustainability these days, and will have their own environmental goals. This creates opportunities for collaboration to ensure the most efficient servers are used. In this way customers can keep costs manageable, and operators can better measure performance metrics and track maintenance requirements. In the case of operators with ALM offerings, customers can often find strong cost-based benefits encouraging them to recycle older equipment, with greener replacements often having far lower running costs due to improved efficiencies and funded in part from the re-sale of older technologies.
There will always be improvements as technology advances and data centres become fully sustainable and self-sufficient, but the roadmap is now firmly in place and taking shape. The data centre of the future will be carbon neutral and powered fully by natural energy sources including wind, solar, tidal, and possibly backed up by battery storage alone, rather than diesel. Self-diagnostic data halls will predict maintenance issues and flag when equipment is due to expire, alleviating the need for preventative maintenance engineering.
Customers will be contracted on their actual loads and with equipment so advanced and modern, operators will be able to accurately predict and project power load requirements, allowing data halls (secure, fully walled spaces within a data centre containing server cabinets of various sizes) to be designed to the actual need rather than oversubscribed with lots of stranded power. The average lifecycle of equipment will also be aligned with the average customer contract length, as design standards improve, aligning commercial terms with the circular economy.
Finally, data centres will provide far more value to their local communities, for example through heat source recovery to improve local grid resiliency or even reduce local costs of electricity. Today, latent heat
generated can be piped into schools, hospitals, libraries, leisure facilities and even vertical farms, to ensure that this valuable resource is not wasted. In Sweden for example, waste heat is already being utilised intensively in district heating networks.
The data centre of the future is not as far away as we once thought.