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Could ‘used’ actually mean better?


There has long been speculation that buying something previously owned carried risk, or that buying used and second hand negatively connoted the ‘cheap’, less reliable option. But, there is a new model in town that opens the door for ‘old’ IT equipment to be fully certified, warrantied, and generally as good as new. Here, ITRenew president Ali Fenn redefines the meaning of ‘used’.

Perhaps an obvious question to begin, but in a traditional sense, how do data centre operators define when equipment is ‘used’, or ready for disposal?

Data centre operators all make this judgement according to their own unique environments, equipment types, workloads, business growth and other factors. The range is generally from three to nine years, and the market is highly bifurcated.

Generally speaking, hyperscale data centre operators refresh their primary workload equipment quickly – every three to four years – while the broader global enterprise and smaller cloud service provider segments trend toward longer timelines.

The reason for this difference is the scale and growth of the former, which demands continuous optimisation of efficiency at the data centre level, and more frequently involves new form factors and architectures than would be justified by the radically slowed Moore’s Law curve, which drives efficiency at the system level.

The gap here is what ITRenew is addressing via circularity, the opportunity to capture lifetime value and maximise longevity in the aggregate in order to create longer highly productive lifecycles for all data centre hardware.   

How would you define the concept of ‘circularity’ within IT?

The concept of circularity in the IT sector advances the idea that the lifetimes of equipment are not linear. Instead, they should be thought of as cascading circles, or pathways, that keep compute and storage resources in their highest utility for as long as possible, and enable those assets to realise both maximal financial value and sustainability impact. Tangibly, this means cascading technology for secondary and tertiary use with as little remanufacturing and transformation as possible.

How would the data centre industry (and the planet) benefit from a more circular approach? 

There are really two major value opportunities: sustainability and the ability to access and deploy more IT infrastructure at the most advantageous cost. ITRenew’s recent Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of standard racks of data centre equipment found that in common manufacturing/deployment/end-of-life scenarios, as much as 75% of the total carbon impact of IT equipment can come from the manufacturing phase of life.

This means that for every rack that is given a second life, that same amount of carbon is avoided due to the deferral of new manufacturing. With nearly 50m servers expected to be decommissioned in the next three to four years, the aggregate impact potential for CO2 savings is massive.

Secondly, circularity – as reflected in recertified solutions – enables significant Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) savings, often as much as 50%. This means that enterprises can do a lot more with less and make their budgets go further. From the broader social perspective, the cost savings of circular equipment stands to significantly accelerate progress toward universal digital access – a big target of the UN SDGs. 

Despite sustainability and climate change being prevalent in the data centre space for a while now, why do the majority of facilities continue to use a ‘make, use, dispose’ data centre model? What are the current barriers to a more circular concept? 

Two primary reasons. First, data centre operators have – rightly – been predominantly focused on improving the energy efficiency and use phase operational energy of their facilities. There is no question that lowering PUE, shifting to renewables, and leveraging carbon offset credits have had and will continue to have a significant sustainability impact on the industry.

Secondly, until recently, most IT in the hyperscale fleets was proprietary OEM solutions, and hence not suited for the recertification and reconfiguration required for circularity. However, with the more recent shift to ODM and open hardware solutions, it is now possible for ITRenew to do the necessary engineering, operational, and services work to transform the hyperscale innovation into solutions that are both useful and usable by broader markets, and supportable by ITRenew.  

Do you think the large hyperscalers and cloud providers have a responsibility to lead the way if this is to become the norm? Do smaller facilities have the resources to do this?

The hyperscalers have all made significant public statements about achieving carbon neutral and carbon negative goals. To succeed and fully decarbonise, comprehensive work across the supply chain will be required – including changing how their hardware is designed, sourced, used and reused. The smaller guys have a different role to play – they need to seriously consider procuring circular equipment, both for the sake of climate change and their own bottom lines.

When it comes to e-waste, how are data centres (in general) currently disposing of this? Is there a better way?

There are actually well-established regulations and certification standards such as WEEE, ISO, and R2 that govern the space and have helped to ensure that IT equipment generally flows downstream to the best possible recycling services providers and pathways. The critical next step is to not just leverage the best available recycling services and technology, but to keep more material out of the waste streams all together. This is the goal of circularity.

Would you say within an IT environment there are more opportunities to recycle or upcycle? Or perhaps a mix of both?

In the industry, we think about this in terms of internal reuse or reclaim, as opposed to external reuse or recycling. Opportunities for the former exist as both the component (think spares) and system level but are unfortunately minority programs due to the nature of changing architectures within most environments.

Recycling, on the other hand, is a reasonable ‘catch-all’ to avoid landfills but should be considered the ‘least-worst’ alternative for want of a better phrase. The best strategy is to create solution level second life opportunities for racks and servers and storage, hence deferring the need for recycling.   

What are the key advantages to re-using existing materials, both for a business and the planet?

Globally, we use 1.7x the Earth’s resources every year and this is growing. We have minerals shortages across the board but especially in the electronics space where the industry has begun to turn to deep sea mining to bridge the gap.

On the other end of the lifecycle, worldwide we create more than 50m tonnes of e-waste annually and this number is headed to 75m by 2025. Reuse of systems is an essential strategy on both fronts at planetary scale. Commercially, the cost savings and cultural value of recertified materials and products enable competitive advantage, and the supply chain adaptation helps with achievement of carbon goals. It is also well established that companies with strong ESG policies outperform in company valuation and financial performance.

Do you believe a more sustainable approach in the data centre industry will play a key role in the UK achieving its net zero by 2050 target?

It has to. The data centre industry is a major consumer of global energy and a contributor to GHG from Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. A holistic approach encompassing renewable energy, technological innovation to drive efficiency, and circular supply chains is the only path to net zero.  

We mustn’t forget, data centres are operated by people, and a data centre operator from a younger generation, might for instance be more open to making sustainable changes. If I were an old school data centre operator, adamant that the ‘make, use, dispose’ method was still king, probably not overly concerned about the planet, what might you say to me to convince me otherwise? Are there any small changes I could make?

Fortunately, I haven’t encountered this much – by and large, all data centre operators are aware of the imperative and interested in the opportunity to take action. Doing so is harder of course. My advice is to just start. Be willing to experiment, to try something new, don’t be beholden to the way it’s always worked, or the solutions you’ve always used.

The public cloud disrupted everything. Everyone, even and especially in their own and cool environments, can now focus on the goal of maximum outcomes/$. Do this, and you will find your way to recertified, circular, sustainable equipment delivered without compromise.  

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