The world’s growing reliance on data centre infrastructure has come at a cost. According to recent studies, the data centre industry is responsible for 1% of global electricity consumption.
What’s more, data centres are responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that is only set to increase. With the conclusion of COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, governments and the private sector worldwide are feeling the pressure to make cuts to emissions anywhere and everywhere they can.
One of the most headline grabbing commitments of the milestone conference was the agreement to ‘phase down coal’. Coal fired power stations provide 37% of global electricity supply. Replacing that, particularly in countries like India who battle the dual imperative of sustainability and development, is a huge ask. Inevitably, there will be a push for energy efficiency wherever it can be found to ease this burden.
With essential, but highly ambitious, commitments having been made by companies like PwC and government agencies like the Environment Agency to reach net zero emissions by 2030, the race to decarbonise without compromising business, economic growth or the advances of our digital world, is on.
Innovations in efficiency will be key
As with so many problems in sustainability, the issues are complex and require multiple solutions if we are to fully decarbonise. Sean Ratka and Francisco Boshell from the International Renewal Energy Agency describe ‘the nexus between data centres, efficiency and renewables‘ as an incredible opportunity for technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon to set the standard for a green transition.
The tech industry is a great example of a space where multiple solutions can come together. In the long term, the industry is looking to fully migrate to renewable power, but the easiest way to minimise environmental impact today is through simple steps toward energy reduction.
The trend is moving toward increasing efficiency, and some estimates show that this approach could have real impact. In 2015, a study by Anders Andrae and Thomas Edler from Huawei suggested that by 2030, data centres could be responsible for 8% of total electricity demand. Andrae has now modified that to 3%, contributing to an estimated total figure of global internet electricity consumption of around 9%.
However, there is room for optimism. A 2017 report by the International Energy Agency entitled Digitalisation and Energy remarked, ‘The strong growth in demand for data centre services is offset by continued improvements in the efficiency of servers, storage devices, network switches and data centre infrastructure, as well as a shift to much greater shares of cloud and hyperscale data centres.’
A role for timing
Timing has become an essential business enabler, first in financial services to facilitate high-frequency trading, and now in myriad new sectors, including media/broadcast and IoT. Precision timing can be a major and energy-hungry installation, particularly for users with a large number of data centre locations.
The traditional hardware solution often requires multiple devices across racks, as well as extra equipment like switches and antennae, at every data centre. Hoptroff’s research shows the energy required to power this equipment can be responsible for 32kg of CO2 emissions per day.
In the finance sector, MiFID II and CAT regulations are here to stay. These regulations require precise timing to ensure compliance, meaning firms must have these solutions in place. This is to increase efficiency, prevent millions of dollars in losses from dropped transactions and keep financial services accountable.
There is a clear role for data centre providers in sustainability, most immediately through more energy efficient approaches to timing services. A network-delivered approach to timing can provide this reduction. By maintaining timing hubs in key locations, time can be fanned out to any data centre location worldwide, without the need to run energy intensive additional hardware at every individual location requiring time.
This network-delivered approach to timing is far more energy efficient, reducing associated CO2 emissions by up to 93%. Hoptroff estimates utilising this method can save 30kg of CO2 per day, per location, when compared with the hardware alternative. Of course, this effect is compounded at scale, as physical infrastructure does not have to increase with the number of locations receiving time.
Going greener is crucial for data centres
This small adjustment to timing infrastructure is a piece of a bigger sustainability picture for greener data centres that also includes transition to renewable energy, better cooling methods and water reclamation. Though a small part of the solution, network-delivered time offers data centres an incredibly simple opportunity to reduce the burden of essential technology on the environment, without compromising on service.