Tackling Environmental Impact of Data Centres

Tackling the Environmental Impact of Data Centres

Jul 8, 2020

Data centres have transformed the way information technology and communications are organised the world over. Without the development of remote, dedicated facilities for running data storage and processing, there would be no cloud computing. And as use of the internet, smartphones and millions of other connected devices has grown exponentially over the past two decades, data centres have become the foundation of the emerging digital economy.

The numbers around the growth of data centres tell their own story. According to IDC, the number of data centres worldwide increased 16-fold between 2012 and 2018, from 500,000 to 8 million. In the UK, the country’s data centre sector – the biggest in Europe – is estimated to contribute 5% of overall GVA to the economy.

Yet the explosive growth of data sectors has come at a cost. Despite what the term ‘cloud’ implies, all of that computer processing and storage doesn’t happen in thin air. Millions of data centres mean billions of servers, packed in their tens of thousands into individual facilities. That makes data centres massive consumers of electricity, and the environmental downsides are by now well known.

Just to put some figures on it – in 2016, it was calculated that all of the data centres in the world consumed more electricity per annum than the UK, the world’s fifth largest economy. Worryingly, it is estimated that the amount of energy consumed by the sector doubles every four years. It is already believed that data centres account for a similar amount of carbon emissions as the aviation industry.

Not surprisingly, then, environmental impact is a hot topic of debate in the industry, and there is intense pressure to adopt greener, more sustainable practices. The challenge, of course, is that no one is expecting demand for data centre capacity to dip anytime soon – just the opposite, in fact.

Emerging technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G mobile and Artificial Intelligence (AI) continue to add to the data load at a relentless rate, while more people than ever are using digital systems to do everything from their weekly shopping to working from home. It has been forecast that, on the present growth trajectory, data centres could be consuming anything between 10% and 20% of the world’s electricity by 2030, and contributing up to 14% of global emissions by 2040.

Green by design

The good news is that there is already a buzz of activity centred around making data centres considerably more energy efficient, and signs that, despite reliance on data centres growing, growth in energy consumption is flattening. Efforts to create greener, more energy efficient data centres focus on two main areas, infrastructure architecture and component design.

Infrastructure architects will take on an increasingly prominent role in squaring the circle between increased capacity and lower energy consumption. We already know that how a data centre is laid out, how the banks of servers are organised in relation to one another, has a massive impact on energy efficiency. One study, for example, predicted that if 80% of servers in the US were moved to optimised hyperscale facilities, overall energy consumption could be cut by a quarter.

Going forward, this kind of ‘green design’ thinking will be a much sought after skill in the infrastructure architects armoury. We are already seeing the importance of ‘natural’ cooling systems to replace the use of fans, which has been a massive contributor to data centre energy consumption. When you pack thousands of busy servers together in one place, temperatures rise quickly and cooling becomes essential to prevent a semi-literal meltdown.

Instead of thousands of fans consuming electricity to keep temperatures down, innovative ‘open air’ data centre designs rely on fresh air for cooling, while the likes of Google and Microsoft have famously invested in systems that pipe icy seawater around the server banks or even conducted experiments with submerging racks directly under water. Furthermore, by piping water deep into server systems and close to the most energy-thirsty components, significant efficiency gains have also been achieved even with non-cooled or warm water, an important development for ensuring efficient data centres can be built anywhere in the world.

One final role that it may fall to the environmentally conscious infrastructure architects to take on is education. While the big players in the sector – the digital giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon with the biggest vested interests in the future of data centres – are investing heavily in green technologies, there are suggestions that other operators are further behind the curve.

While enterprises continue to invest in their own data centres as part of the growing popularity of hybrid IT infrastructures, one survey of North American companies by IHS Markit revealed that improving energy efficiency was well down the list of priorities. At the same time, another study by Informa suggests awareness of the issue remains worryingly low out in the wider community, with most enterprise IT leaders not knowing their data centres’ power usage effectiveness (PUE), the key efficiency metric.

These findings suggest that achieving a greener approach to data centre management will be as much about cultural change as it is technological innovation. That in itself will require skilled, knowledgeable leaders to come to the fore.