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Greening the data centre

David Watkins, solutions director for Virtus Data Centres discusses how the industry is delivering on its carbon zero commitments.

The rapid rise of smartphones, IoT adoption, and big data analytics has meant that data usage is growing exponentially. In 2012, there were only 500,000 data centres worldwide to handle global internet traffic, but today, according to IDC, there are more than eight million.

However, this growth of data and demand for data centres comes at a cost. Every year, global data centres are purging metric tonnes of out-of-date hardware, using vast amounts of electricity, and generating large carbon footprints.

As a result, the pressure to address this is significant. The EU Commission recently set a “green deadline”, stating that industry “should become climate neutral by 2030.” Customers are expecting change too – as businesses ask their providers for evidence of robust sustainability and carbon reduction measures.

The data centre industry must work to meet its environmental targets while maintaining service and delivering on continually growing customer demand.

Harnessing renewables

Global supplies from renewable power, including wind, solar and hydro are on-track to surpass supplies of gas, oil and coal-fired stations in the near future.

Late 2019 saw renewables surpass fossil fuels as the largest generation source of UK energy for the first time, and its falling prices through technology improvement and scale means that it’s now more affordable than ever to harness renewable energy sources.

Renewable energy projects are an area of continued success for the industry, helping data centre providers meet their sustainability commitments.

A good example of this at work is a campus in the southwestern tip of Iceland, which runs almost entirely on geothermal and hydroelectric power. The Icelandic data centre owners claim theirs to be the world’s first carbon-neutral data centre, and the industry is suitably impressed. BMW has already moved a large portion of its German clusters to the campus, and more organisations look set to follow.

Australia, too, is rising to the green challenge in terms of renewable energy – a data centre in Port Melbourne now includes one of Australia’s biggest solar arrays for generating its own power, providing customers with the opportunity to choose 100% renewable power for their IT infrastructure.

Tackling the cooling issue

One big area of improvement for the data centre industry is to develop superior cooling techniques.

A popular solution is to simply locate data centres in cold or windy climates, but this simply isn’t practical for all – data centres and customers alike.

Another approach is leaving fewer servers on, so as not to waste time idling: Facebook invented a system called Autoscale in 2014 that reduces the number of servers that need to be on during low-traffic hours, leading to power savings of around 15%, and, some companies have turned to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimise their internal cooling systems by matching weather and operational conditions, reducing cooling energy usage by almost 40%.

Technology advances are having a significant effect on the development of innovative cooling methods. For example, a Frankfurt data centre has reduced its water consumption through an on-site reverse osmosis water treatment plant, and has implemented the harvesting of rainwater to feed the plants that cover the exterior walls and roof. Outside air is used for cooling more than 60% of the time in this innovative design.

In the UK, Virtus Data Centres, is continually looking at how to optimise its data centres. To keep them as efficient as possible, the company uses a variety of innovative design elements for greater efficiency while actually lowering costs; this includes air flooded data halls, utilising hot aisle containment, and cooling using industry leading technologies. 

A holistic approach

Instead of discrete initiatives, experts agree that environmental ambitions must be built into every aspect of data centre construction and maintenance. When it comes to construction, BREEAM standards examine the green credentials of commercial buildings, verifying the performance of buildings and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks.

By adhering to BREEAM standards, data centre providers can lead with energy efficient and effective design from the start, adopting the latest in building technologies and sustainable sourcing of materials for these buildings – ensuring a smarter, cleaner way of consuming energy and water.

Once a building is up and running there are plenty of every day concerns to address too. Highly efficient UPS (Unlimited Power Supply) systems, for example, having the ability to hibernate parts of the system when they aren’t being used – saving on unnecessary power use.

As global consumption of technologies continues to grow and become more and more advanced, the need for data centres underpinning all of this becomes greater.

Data centres must work harder to deliver on the dual requirements of customer needs and sustainability demands. And whilst technology advancement will continue to benefit businesses and the wider populations, data centre operators must figure out how to be as energy efficient as possible, to ensure the carbon footprint left behind isn’t irreversible.

The industry is already taking positive steps to marry performance with sustainability, embracing zero carbon energy sources, whilst maintaining the security of supply, service uptime and customer satisfaction.

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