Sustainability is often associated with recycling or water conservation measures. However, sustainability is playing an increasingly important role in the tech world, especially in data centers through which most internet traffic is routed.
Sustainability in today’s data center means reducing energy/water consumption and carbon emissions to offset the increasing use of computing machines and mobile devices that we rely on every day to keep our businesses running smoothly.
As of 2020, data centers consumed 200-250 TWh of electricity which accounts for 1% of global electricity demand and is expected to continue trending upward.
The Pressure to Go Green
Data centers process internet traffic and transmit data. Internet traffic has risen exponentially in the past decade—about 30% every year since 2010 and 40% in 2020 alone—and will only continue to grow, especially as consumers demand more gaming, e-commerce, and streaming services. This means that data center operators need to take extra care to offset the carbon footprint generated from processing all that data traffic.
The growing attention to reducing the data center carbon footprint can be attributed mainly to governmental regulation and to increased awareness and social norms surrounding human impact on climate change. Cybersecurity consultant Therese Schachner from VPNbrains.com explains that “governments, sustainability-focused organizations, and consumers are exerting the most pressure on data centers to become more sustainable.”
Growing regulatory pressure in the US and beyond necessitates data center efficiency. Passed in December 2020, the US Energy Act pushes for new studies of data centers’ energy and water usage and for data centers to develop a new efficiency metric. Schachner adds that “Europe has enforced its Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in Data Centres.”
Consumers and investors are paying more attention to sustainability practices, and companies are responding in kind, as evidenced by green marketing strategies in their branding and steps that some are taking to reduce their data center energy consumption. Holly Curell, Community Manager at Airconditioner Lab, notes changing consumer values as a driver for companies’ increased attention towards sustainability: “Consumers have become conscious of and concerned about social and environmental issues. They believe that a company’s values are just as important as its ethical business practices.”
Combined with regulatory and stakeholder pressure, peer pressure also figures into the equation. Data center competitors are talking about and executing on green initiatives. In fact, 90% of senior IT leader respondents to a survey on sustainability in IT name sustainability as a top priority. They’re not only talking the talk, but walking the walk as well. 67% of respondents report that they are setting sustainability goals, and 62% of those respondents are assessing their data center infrastructure to meet those targets.
Major players in the tech arena, such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, are setting new precedents that other companies can and should follow. Going green is therefore becoming less of a choice and more of a shared value in the tech world that companies must act on.
Also read: Micro Data Centers are Evolving the Edge
5 Steps That Data Centers are Taking to Go Green
According to LuckLuckGo COO Ryan Yount, basic steps for creating a more sustainable data center include “conducting regular baseline energy audits, reducing the data center power usage, and optimizing the data center cooling.”
Below are some concrete ways that data centers are becoming more sustainable.
Scalability = Efficiency
More and more of the services and infrastructure we use are supported by highly efficient cloud and hyperscale data centers. These kinds of data centers run at high capacity with fewer servers, thanks to virtualization software, which sets up a virtual computer system on which multiple applications and operating systems can run on only one or a few servers.
Localized energy matching
Solar and wind can only offset so much of the electricity that data centers use. That’s why hourly load-matching strategies are a viable way forward in creating a decarbonized grid in the long term. Data center operators should strive to localize the purchase of renewable energy. In contrast to a comprehensive energy-matching strategy, localized energy matching means purchasing renewable energy where and when low-carbon sources are more abundant. Solar energy, for example, will be unevenly distributed according to geographic location.
DCIM and BMS systems for great energy efficiency
Data center infrastructure management (DCIM) software as well as building management systems (BMS) software help data centers become more efficient and achieve sustainability goals by helping data center operators identify and document methods for more efficient energy use. DCIM software is a growing category, and sales are expected to continue in an upward trend.
Building green data centers
Companies are adopting green building construction standards, such as BREEAM, LEED, or Green Globes.
While some of the standard mandatory building codes do not focus on emissions, voluntary building codes like Green Globes which is modeled after Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) do focus on emissions.
Between Green Globes and LEED, the former incorporates project/environmental management, while LEED includes standards for operations and maintenance. Fortunately, neither of these require entirely new construction; their standards can be applied to existing buildings.
Partnering with green suppliers
Companies are joining the Clean Energy Buyers Association (CEBA). With 300 members and counting, CEBA is a network of businesses, suppliers, and policy makers committed to achieving a 90% carbon-free US electricity system by 2030 and making it logistically and financially more feasible to use renewable energy.
Also read: Top Trends in Cloud Computing
Room for Progress in Data Center Sustainability
Hardware/infrastructural emissions are a challenge
While progress has been made to reduce carbon emissions from operational technology, the non-operational side of data centers, such as computing equipment, will continue to pose a challenge for data centers’ green initiatives. A study from October 2020 finds that hardware and infrastructure equipment makes up most of a data center’s carbon output.
Bringing renewable energy sources closer to data centers
There is currently a logistical issue of bringing wind, solar, and geothermal power sources, often located in low-populated rural areas to data centers that are usually located in metropolitan areas. However, parts of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recently signed into law as of November 2021, will help address this issue.
There are continued cost barriers for data centers to adopt green practices and retrofit equipment to be more carbon neutral. However, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act subsidizes green projects and initiatives.
The Future of Sustainable Data Centers
Some emerging trends to keep an eye on as more data centers focus on sustainable operations in both the long and short terms include increasing use of blockchain apps and the use of AI/ML to further optimize data center operations’ efficiency.
As blockchain applications become more ubiquitous with the growth of cryptocurrency, data center operations, energy analysts, and policy makers will pay more attention to understanding, tracking, and managing data center energy consumption.
AI/ML software integrations will help data centers become more efficient. They can automate tasks and power down idle machines. Furthermore, AI/ML predictive analytics can help data center operators better anticipate and manage energy and water consumption and their related effects on data center humidity, cooling temperatures, etc.
With a number of major tech players leading the way, the topic of sustainability, particularly for data centers, is not going away. In fact, as internet traffic volume continues to increase, data center operators will need to continue to mitigate impacts of energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Read next: Data Center Technology Trends for 2022