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Is sustainability causing tension in the data centre space?

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

Green data centres are a vital element in meeting global net-zero targets, with the Covid-19 pandemic helping to both accelerate digital transformation and bring awareness to these facilities’ green credentials. But do we now find ourselves in a state of sustainability vs speed? Fabrizio Garrone, Aruba representative on the Board of Directors of Climate Neutral Data Center Pact tells us more.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had the dual effect of both accelerating digital transformation and bringing environmental and sustainability issues to the forefront of the collective consciousness, creating an interesting tension in the data centre space.

As we’ve shifted to remote working, even more organisations have begun to rely on outsourced data centre services and cloud computing to support their everyday operations.

The servers, backups, and power cooling infrastructure of these account for 1% of total yearly global energy use. This figure may not seem immediately alarming, however, to put it in context, consider that annual CO2 emissions from data centres equal those of the commercial airline industry at pre-pandemic levels.

In a recent Turner & Townsend survey of IT industry professionals, 85% predicted that data centre construction demand will be higher in 2021 than 2020 – a year which was already notable for its high demand.

It’s no surprise then, that many are forecasting an unsustainable growth in electricity use and carbon emissions as new data centres continue to come online worldwide.

Efficiency endeavours

The great news is that vendors and operators have become much more conscious of the need to prioritise energy efficiency. As such, electricity demand from data centres globally is expected to remain flat to 2021, despite a projected 50% increase in data centre workloads.  

In most conventional data centres, the monumental task of cooling servers and backups is the primary source of energy consumption. Up to 40% of electricity usage can go towards sustaining and operating a server below 26 degrees Celsius.

For this reason, Aruba’s Global Cloud Data Centre (IT3) campus in Milan replaces traditional cooling solutions with a geothermal system that makes use of naturally occurring cold water underground.

This system powers all air conditioning for the data rooms across the campus, making it extremely energy efficient. The rack cabinets housing the servers are also equipped with an innovative cold air containment system to guarantee maximum energy efficiency and a comfortable working environment.

Interest in innovative cooling solutions is certainly growing. For those who take this route, the long-term monetary savings can be impressive.

By moving to natural cooling technology, Aberdeen University (UK), improved the power usage effectiveness of its data centre from 2.6 (ranked inefficient) to 1.15 (ranked highly efficient) and is now saving £100,000 per year.

Considering that cooling UK data centres currently costs an estimated £4-7 billion per annum, the savings of switching to more efficient cooling systems across the board would be significant.

The leap to renewables

Maximising energy efficiency is just one side of the equation for data centres; the other is sourcing electricity from low or zero-carbon sources. Often, due to the significant investment required to get renewable energy projects off the ground, data centre operators prioritise optimising their energy consumption.

However, technological advances have meant the cost-per-unit of producing renewable energy has fallen precipitously over the past decade.

Notably, the levelised cost of energy – which measures lifetime costs divided by energy production – for solar photovoltaic panels has fallen by 82% (2010-2019).

As such, the world of data centres is seeing a seismic shift, with many making the leap to self-generation.

For instance, Aruba’s Global Cloud Data Centre – one of the largest, state-of-the-art data campuses in Italy – has 60MW of renewable power production capacity onsite. Photovoltaic panels cover the surfaces of the buildings, alongside a purpose-built hydroelectric plant.

Where sufficient electricity cannot be generated onsite, it is supplemented by renewable energy from European Guarantee of Origin scheme (GO) certified sources, meaning the campus is 100% powered by renewables.

Our point of view is that we want to continue to improve the energy efficiency of our data centres using new technologies that not only focus on optimising the supporting infrastructure of the data centre in an isolated manner, but also tap into previously untapped potential of the energy used in a data centre as a whole (e.g., AI-driven Data Centre Infrastructure Management systems (DCIM) and waste heat recovery and reuse).

As we seek to protect our planet for future generations, it’s heartening to see innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy use happening across the data centre industry.

To achieve success, it’s important that operators and vendors hold each other to account through initiatives like the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact.

The pact’s signatories – which includes some of the biggest European Cloud providers – have publicly committed to making their data centres in Europe are carbon neutral by 2030, in line with findings from the European Commission’s 2020 report, ‘Shaping Europe’s Digital Future’.

Moreover, the signatories of this self-regulatory initiative have agreed to provide evidence of this through: evidence of measurable targets using efficient energy, purchases for only 100% carbon-free energy, water conservation targets, server repairs and recycling of parts, and other ways of recycling heat.

Although global data centre capacity will undoubtedly expand in the coming years, we cannot accept that emissions will grow at the same level. As an industry, we can and should prioritise protecting the environment as we continue to deliver vital data centre and cloud computing services.  

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