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Could retrofitting legacy data centres make the sector more sustainable?

Image: Adobe Stock / pinkeyes

Current trends in increasing data generation are driving power density and placing stringent demands on data centres. With the world’s insatiable digital need, it’s estimated the number of online devices will reach 29 billion in 2030, and the volume of generated data will reach 175 zettabytes by 2025.

As a result of our data driven needs, data centres consume between 1-3% of global electricity, creating growing urgency and opportunity to make data centres more sustainable and mitigate environmental impact. 

Retrofitting existing assets

Demand for increasing data centre infrastructure requires scalable and quick-to-deploy results, and for many data centre clients, retrofitting is the solution. Retrofitting is the process of improving, upgrading or renovating existing facilities, and adding new equipment or expanding capacities to meet changing demands and technologies. Significant investment in the retrofitting process is anticipated to help reduce emissions from new builds or demolitions. Across the board, all sizes of upgrades and expansions are now as important to our market as greenfield builds.

We know that sustainability, efficiency, and optimisation are key determining factors for owners choosing the retrofit route to meet the changing market demands. Retrofits of mission critical facilities fall into one of two categories. The first is expanding or renovating an existing data centre. The second is converting a building designed for an alternative use into a data centre. Both have substantial environmental benefits and cost efficiencies for clients.

While there still will be a concentrated effort around prefabrication, alternate fuel sources and delivery methods to reduce the environmental impact, clients undertaking the retrofit process will be ahead of the sustainability curve as the retrofit process reduces greenhouse gases by up to 75% and increases the lifespan of the facility.

Not only do retrofits help achieve sustainability efforts, but also offer a huge advantage in time savings. With the average data centre taking between 18 and 24 months to build, a retrofit can go through design and construction, creating a production environment in less than a year. Permits for retrofits often take less time to obtain than a full new greenfield project, expediting speed to market. As an industry, there is an approximate 30% time saving when clients choose to go the retrofit route – mainly due to site development and utility savings. This time saving is the largest contributing factor for the success of the retrofit process. 

Since it’s not always possible or cost-effective to build new facilities, and since space is often at a premium, making the most of existing floorspace is often a necessity. Legacy data centres have become prime targets for complete retrofits. With the shell and core of the building already constructed, data centre clients can greatly reduce their time to market by focusing on efficient mechanical and electrical systems and network optimisation, which creates substantial energy savings through the elimination of redundant server equipment.

Facility modernisation 

Cost effective and energy reducing, retrofitting creates merits when upgrading data centre infrastructure, electrical equipment, cooling optimisation, and server upgrades and virtualisation. Using an integrated approach, these facilities undergo significant design and engineering work coupled with critical facilities commissioning to meet new requirements and standards replacing ineffective operating systems.

Typical upgrade and refresh cycles to modernise data facilities occur roughly every five years with modernisation including server virtualisation, improving cooling systems to lower PUE, optimising air flow, use of an energy-efficient UPS, PDUs and generators, and upgrading facility monitoring and controls. These upgrade cycles are happening in significant numbers – more than we’ve ever seen before as an industry – due to the facilities constructed over the past decade that now require modernisation to align with technological changes and digital advancements driving efficiency. The modernisation process is technology driven, as changing out legacy servers to optimise the electrical and mechanical infrastructure ensures the highest level of sustainability.

A retrofit design and construction team should always incorporate flexibility and redundancy into the design to ensure technological and structural expansion requirements are met in the future. Professionals with experience in live facilities are critical to a retrofit team, applying their knowledge to mitigate potential challenges during an upgrade and to align with MEP, facilities, and operations teams.  When working in a live production facility, the challenge of negotiating risks to uptime and operations also requires an experienced authority that knows all phases of a commissioning plan, including installation, start-up, integration of existing and new infrastructure coupled with hardware and software testing. 

Adopting innovative technologies

With a building retrofit, contractors can meet targets for reduced emissions, embodied carbon and energy consumption. Understanding how a data centre performs is key to identifying ways to improve it. As efficiencies are identified, the retrofit will encompass major modernisation for optimum performance with sustainability and carbon footprint considerations.

Knowing that up to 50% of power used in a data centre goes to cooling is important and can drive introduction of new cooling technologies. A new approach to cooling systems creates longer technology lifespan and has a significant impact on the bottom line and reducing carbon emissions.

All data centre cooling technologies impact power consumption. Several options can lead to a more sustainable practice. We know now that servers can operate at higher ambient temperatures than we’ve run them in the past, and this is a quick and easy way to cut energy and improve PUE. Another option is the use of liquid cooling that directly removes heat from servers through immersion systems using boiled synthetic liquid. This liquid turns into vapour on contact with the machinery, removing heat and travelling as bubbles to the surface where the gas turns back into liquid that repeats the cycle. Technologies that change the way cold air is used, conserve energy and also lower PUE. 

Significant energy savings and network optimisation can also occur within data centre retrofits when converting from a legacy data centre layout to hot and cold aisle containment systems. The energy-efficient layout of hot and cold aisles manages airflow to lower cooling costs and conserves energy as cold air intakes run one way and hot air exhausts run the other. This process eliminates hot spots and significantly reduces risk of equipment failure through regulation of equipment temperature. Since the aisles are isolated, air temperatures don’t mix and heating, HVAC and ventilation systems operate in the most energy conservative way.

The need for data centres is only going to increase to support global digital consumption, and as it does, owners are prioritising retrofitting and changing technologies for efficiency and sustainability. As an industry, the retrofit approach is one way to meet the ever-increasing demand, keep energy costs in check, minimise disruptions to uptime during construction, and create a flexible and cost-effective approach with lasting benefits to the environment.

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