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Four ways that data centres can deliver services sustainably

Data centres have become the cornerstone of today’s digitally transformed planet, but it is a technology success story tempered by the clear and present environmental impact created by an industry that consumes huge amounts of electricity. Eltjo Hofstee, managing director at Leaseweb UK, describes some of the ways that data centres could reduce their carbon footprint. 

In 2017, data centres were already using around 3% of the world’s total electricity, according to Forbes, putting the role of data centres on environmental sustainability into an alarming context.

That’s not to say that data centre operators have ignored their sustainability obligations. The industry has certainly shown that it cares about energy efficiency, with a strong focus on improving energy use. The Green Grid, the European Code of Conduct for data centres, the work of the Uptime Institute, and a range of industry standards and certifications for energy efficient data centre operations are just a few examples of the industry working to improve performance. There are some notable examples of data centres that run on renewable energy, or those built to take advantage of naturally cold climates. Both Apple and Facebook have built data centres near hydropower resources, for instance.

While these examples may be leading the way, every data centre operator needs to do a lot more to improve the environmental performance of their infrastructure. A win-win is to do so without impacting service delivery or their competitive edge, and there are a range of options to help deliver on that objective.

Investing in new technology

Data centre operators who use older equipment will not only be contending with technology that is likely to be less efficient, but also degrades in environmental performance over time. As data centres age, it is vital that upgrades to key services are procured with sustainability at the top of the shopping list.

For example, data centres rely on temperature-controlled environments to maintain functionality of hardware such as servers and UPSs. While this is important from an operational and customer satisfaction perspective, it’s equally important to be mindful of the environment – expelling energy that harms the planet is contributing to the very effects that we are trying to mitigate.

Maximising the lifespan of data centre infrastructure might offer some financial benefits in the short term, but purchasing new equipment can actually reduce overhead costs, because the vast majority of older equipment is no longer energy efficient, likely costing more to run than replace.

Software-powered sustainability

Another solution to achieving sustainability is virtualisation. This approach enables IT teams to fully utilise the capacity of a physical server, which means in most cases the same environment can run on fewer physical servers, without performance decrease. Running multiple pieces of software to run on the same server also helps lower costs for the user storing their information at that facility. Although this means on average a higher power consumption per server, the consumption for the full platform will be lowered compared to non-virtualized environments.

According to a study from IDC, the adoption of virtualisation technology instead of new server deployments has resulted in significant power savings in “magnitudes of order beyond what can be delivered by incremental improvements in efficiency that come from more efficient processors, more efficient power supplies, or a move from spinning media to solid state storage.” The knock-on impact has been a growing reduction in worldwide data centre CO2 emissions, underlining the environmental benefits of virtualization solutions.

And according to a paper published by the International Journal of Advanced Research in Computer Engineering & Technology (IJARCET), “virtualization brings substantial energy savings, promotes green computing and would be a clear methodology to conserve the environment in the technology world today . . . without compromising technological needs of the current and future generations.”

On the flip side, organisations need to maintain careful control over the number of virtual machines they have in use or they can also fall into a ‘zombie server’ trap of powering large numbers of VMs that they don’t actually need.

Intelligent use of heat

As mentioned before, Apple and Facebook have developed DCs next to hydropower resources and there are also examples where data centres re-utilise heat to warm houses, offices or even greenhouses. Microsoft and AWS are both pursuing this strategy with DC developments in the north of the Netherlands, and it’s a trend that we should all welcome.

Turning off unused or dead servers

When a business partners with a data centre or a managed service provider to use its data centre to support its service offering, it provides a specified amount of storage that the business will need, for example. Typically, a data centre will allocate additional space in anticipation of expansion, which is often done automatically, not on the request of the customer. Although this provides room for customer growth, it also creates ‘dead’ server space until that expansion occurs.

It’s a genuine issue. When consultant and leading international expert on IT, Jonathan Koomey, surveyed more than 16,000 servers tucked away in various facilities, he found that approximately a quarter were ‘comatose’, drawing power without doing any useful work. The solution is to adopt the approach of green data centres that turn off these ‘zombie’ resources to lower energy consumption and provide savings that can be passed on in lower service charges.

A sustainable data centre industry requires collective commitment and is becoming a ‘must have’ for its customers. The fact that so many businesses are more environmentally aware and conscious of their carbon footprint means that contemplating what sustainable data centres can offer is becoming an important part of the criteria for choosing a data centre provider or managed service.

Concerted efforts to deliver services responsibly and sustainably will ultimately be to the advantage of not just the data centre market, but its customers and, most importantly, the environment.

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