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Giving data centres the green(er) light

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

There is no question that the future of data centres is green, it has to be, but how do operators go beyond the buzzword and actually start making sustainable solutions a reality? Here, Terry Storrar, managing director at Leaseweb UK, tells us how we can go about getting greener (and keep costs down while we’re doing it.)

The data centre industry is a great success, enjoying huge growth and employing many thousands of people worldwide. But that success has had major environmental consequences with the industry on course to become the biggest global consumer of electricity in the ICT sector by 2025.

Research predicts data centres will take a third of ICT’s share of global electricity production by 2025 and ICT as a whole will consume a fifth of global energy production.

This trend is unsustainable, and a change is clearly required with pressure building inside and outside the industry for major improvements in data centre environmental performance. Data centre sustainability is becoming a major factor for customers when it comes to deciding which cloud and data centre services to purchase.

The industry is starting to take action in response to the pressure. In January, a large number of European data centre and cloud operators signed a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030.

The Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, backed by 17 industry bodies, sets ‘targets for efficiency and the use of green energy, as well as making data centres into a circular economy.’

Signatories are committed to increase and measure their efficiency, use 100% renewable energy, address water efficiency and take part in a circular economy to repair and recycle servers – as well as reusing waste heat where possible.

A complex challenge

It is not as simple as it might sound because a number of factors determine a data centre’s power consumption performance.

For example, when adding new data capacity, data centres can’t just take into consideration the storage hardware requirements and the power it consumes. It’s more complex than that.

Modern retention guidelines call for reliable, easily accessible backups and all additional data needs to be secured, cooled and transmitted effectively.

If operators want to upgrade their data centres, that can mean expanding physical space for new racks and other equipment, all of which must be lit, cooled and secured.

Server networks rely on components such as fans, consoles, monitors, lights and cooling systems 24/7 that require large amounts of energy. The widespread need for continuous uptime increases power consumption even more because many systems run around the clock, regardless of whether they’re being used or not.

Reduce energy consumption

To meet the power consumption challenges facing data centres while reducing carbon emissions and improving operational efficiency, operators need to commit to implementing energy-efficient infrastructure. There are a number of factors to consider in achieving that objective.

Buy better equipment

Legacy data centre equipment needs more energy to remain operational as it gets older – and it may not have been particularly efficient when it was first installed.

With hardware manufacturers focused on producing more efficient technologies that perform more effectively over their lifespan, data centre operators should consider renewing their infrastructure as a matter of priority.

Increase virtualisation

Virtualisation offers a number of benefits that can improve environmental performance for data centre operators.

Multiple pieces of software can run on the same server and multiple servers can be combined into one, lowering the environmental impact for each user that stores data at the data centre.

It can reduce the need for facilities to accommodate employees permanently onsite, allowing data centres to function with a reduced energy footprint at higher temperatures.

Retire redundant servers

Companies using data centres often purchase a specified number of services and space to meet their needs. But data centre operators frequently allocate additional space automatically for customers in anticipation of their future expansion. This results in redundant server space until the customer expansion occurs, sometimes it never does.

There is a significant environmental impact from this practice. One research project found 25% of the 16,000 servers it assessed were ‘comatose’, using power without doing any useful work.

Green data centres need to have the capability to turn off ‘zombie’ servers to lower unnecessary energy consumption and costs.

Use power on demand

Environmentally conscious data centres should focus on eliminating power consumption by switching to an on-demand energy model which can be optimised with continuous monitoring and analysis.

Tools are also available to help data centres reclaim unused power and distribute it elsewhere in the facility, reducing their reliance on power generation even further.

Prioritising long-term sustainability

There is no need for data centre operators to be forced into a choice between reducing their environmental impact or improving operational performance. The good news is they can continue to provide the technologies that have transformed global IT, while fully participating in efforts to protect the planet for current and future generations.

The best way to achieve this is through industry-wide initiatives that address environmental performance and investing to improve the efficiency of their facilities. Those who don’t make this a priority will find themselves under increasing scrutiny from customers.

There’s a real danger they may be left behind as the industry focuses on building a successful, sustainable and greener future.

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