Sustainability is a major task and challenge for data centers in 2023

08.03.2023 698 4

Sustainability is a big topic in all industries. It’s an important challenge for data centers, too. These facilities are a critical part of the world’s digital infrastructure. They consume a vast number of resources for energy and cooling which is why they are often a focus of eco initiatives.

Optimizing the efficiency of data centers is key for both their owners and clients. For one, the data center operators need to lower their costs for energy and other resources. Also, as companies are looking to become carbon neutral, they need to also use services which are powered by sustainable sources. This includes data centers.

Institutions also demand this. The EU wants its total net emissions to be neutral by 2050. This means everyone will have to work on lowering their carbon footprint as much as they can. For data centers this challenge can be tough, especially since they already have been doing a lot of work towards such a goal.

Changes in the mindset

Achieving zero net emissions is a tough challenge. It requires a different approach to nearly everything, and it also introduces concepts like the circular economy, which is not compatible with current IT expectations.

For example, the current IT industry motivates companies to change their hardware often – around every three years. New hardware does have benefits like improved performance, less energy consumption, enhanced security, etc., but it also means using more resources and materials to produce the component, shipment, installation, etc. And then there’s the matter of what happens with the old hardware as not everything can be recycled or reused.

The circular economy motivates the longer usage of the same devices. It’s better to repair them to extend their life cycle, more and then find ways to reuse the hardware for other goals.

But there’s more to it than that. Data centers also require a lot of energy to power said hardware and to cool it. And providing this energy along with other resources like water for cooling is a big challenge. This requires bolder actions for data center operators. Many of them are already working hard to improve their data center energy usage in a variety of ways.

A lot goes into true sustainability

Data center operators are quickly realizing that optimizing energy efficiency is not a one-and-done effort, it’s not as easy as simply using solar power instead of a traditional source. What’s needed is a total optimization of every detail including the air temperature in the server rooms.

For a long time, the most popular metric for data center efficiency is PUE (power usage effectiveness), DatacenterFrontier notes. The usual PUE score is 2.0 or more. “It took a lot of collaboration between all stakeholders to come around to warmer supply air temperatures, but as data center users and operators became more comfortable with higher temperatures and various ways to economize, the thinking about PUE evolved, and operators began to target – and reach – PUEs well under 1.5,” notes Stream Data Centers.

Realizing there are other ways to improve efficiency and achieve lower PUE has given data center operators a lot more imagination and motivation. Achieving a lower PUE score is great for attracting clients as it shows the efforts have been paying off. But, again, there’s more to it.

PUE focuses only on electrical efficiency. Howver, in reality, a data center has a lot of other activities which also have an environmental impact. For example, water consumption. Its measurement is WUE (water usage effectiveness). A lot of data centers use water to cool their hardware and it can bring big bills along with it. IT giants are already working on ways to reduce the water consumption of their data centers and even aim to be water positive – bringing more clean water into the environment than they have used.

And even this is not enough to say if a data center is achieving a good level of sustainability. You also have to track waste generation, what’s happening with it, etc. Total greenhouse gas emissions should also include carbon offset efforts. And these efforts are no longer an “if”, but a “must” in order to achieve zero net emissions.

Big goals require brave actions

Some companies don’t want to achieve zero net emissions. They are even bolder and want to be carbon negative. This means they want to reduce emissions actively and help broader climate goals. As a result, they have an even bigger challenge in front of them.

“Data centers are one of the most energy-intensive building types, consuming 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building,” according to the US Department of Energy.

“This fear of runaway data center growth is not a new fear,” says Lucas Beran, principal analyst at Dell’Oro Group, to LightReading. He also notes that thermal management can consume almost 40% of the total energy usage of a data center.

Data center operators are getting creative with the cooling depending on the location. Nordic countries for example have the benefit of lower temperatures to make cooling easier. But we can’t place all data centers at the North Pole. Some facilities simply must be in warmer regions. So, for them, they start exploring other options like liquid cooling, even with fully submerged servers, etc. Companies are developing special hardware and liquids to maximize this type of cooling while minimizing the water and energy needed.

The efforts are already encouraging. Data center energy consumption has remained relatively flat over the past few years, hovering at around 1% to 1.5%, and “almost flat compared to the global energy consumption,” says Moises Levy, Ph.D., a senior principal

analyst at Omdia to LightReading. This is despite the increasing workloads and the overall rise of global temperatures.

“Cloud and colocation service provider data centers are leading the race in sustainability,” Levy says. “Enterprise data center operators are also joining the effort, but some still see sustainability as a threat to reliability and downtime.”

“Data center operation is like a multi-objective optimization strategy. At the end of the day, you need a balance. You need to balance reliability, costs, productivity, efficiency, operations, sustainability. And in my perspective, sustainability is a big part, but it’s another parameter. It’s not the only one,” Levy says.

How to know if a data center is sustainable

Right, so data center operators are indeed doing a lot to make sure their facilities are not wasting resources. As mentioned, this is important for them, the environment, and their clients. The latter need to use services powered by sustainable sources in order to be able to also claim their overall operations are not harmful to the environment.

This is important for their overall reputation, but it also helps with their long-term business. Slowly but surely, restrictions on emissions are going to curb some of their ambitions for certain projects. Also, being able to prove all your services, partners and suppliers are also sustainable, can be of benefit when competing for new key accounts, public funding, etc.

There’s a way for both data center operators and clients to evaluate if the facility is achieving sustainability goals, DataCenterFrontier notes. Basically, you need to create a checklist of sorts.

The main goal is to find out if the stated sustainability goals of the provider are just words or is the company actively working towards them. For that you need to see its past. How did it start? What data centers are operating? How have they been built, maintained and upgraded over the years?

Next, it’s time to start asking questions. For example, what’s the actual energy source of the data center? Is it simply buying it from an energy provider which gives them a certificate guaranteeing the electricity comes from a renewable source? Or maybe it’s using a mix of several providers? Or does it have its own power in place too? Not all data centers can produce the power they need.

Also explore what the actual energy sources of the data center are. Are they renewable and what type – solar, wind, other? Also, has the provider invested in new energy projects? Sometimes data center operators opt to invest in a local clean energy project rather than installing their own equipment.

The next important question to ask is how the data center provider is optimizing and improving the energy efficiency at the facilities? This is where things can get technical with a lot of mentions of PUE and WUE scores. Some of the questions will vary depending on the type of data center and region. If it’s using water, then you should find out what technologies and efforts are being made to reduce water consumption. In general, ask for more details about the specific technologies and solutions used about the ways the data center operator is achieving overall sustainability. They can give you a clear idea of the mindset of the provider and the long-term vision of the company.

Here you can also ask about the provider’s own sustainability goals, what key steps have been made, what is being done right now and what are the next challenges. This is a great place to talk about potential additional partnerships. For example, if you plan to use the data center for colocation services, then you also may be asked about your own sustainability efforts. After all both sides of the deal need to be aligned when it comes to sustainability goals in order to be able to achieve the desired results.

An example of a sustainable data center is Sofia Data Center. For more information, as well as colocation offers and other data center Services, you can visit the SDC website.

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