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How to reduce energy consumption in data centres

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Data centres are the backbone of our digital world. Keeping that digital world running consumes an incomparable amount of energy.

With rising electricity costs, energy security and environmental concerns, business leaders and operators have a clear mandate to reduce power consumption in data centres. Doing so makes financial, business and operational sense.

This article outlines to data centre operators, those admirable heroes on the front line of sustainability concerns, and the C-suite they report into, how to regain control over spiralling energy costs, whether that is investing in more efficient cooling technology or, in most cases, conducting a top-to-bottom energy audit.

Energy costs on the rise

Data centre energy usage is a real challenge, with facilities consuming around 2% of the world’s electricity.

Since 2021, energy costs for data centres have risen five-fold and will still rise throughout 2023. For operators in the UK, there is a particular cause for alarm, as data centres were recently omitted from the government’s Energy and Trade Intensive Industries (“ETII”) scheme.

It’s tough out there.

Regain control with a holistic approach

Everything is connected in a data centre, like one giant circuit board. Changes to one section of your technology stack will have implications for your whole infrastructure, both good and bad.

Identifying the best way to save on energy requires a holistic approach by conducting a top-to-bottom energy audit. Figuring out the total energy spend is critical for achieving high efficiency, both commercially and within everyday practical terms.

Analyse equipment

This is anything but a quick task, but running a power consumption, cooling requirements, heat load and redundancies on every rack, aisle and segment can identify fundamental inefficiencies. It could be as simple as the lighting on an underused colocation unit or automatic doors drawing more power than expected. Cooling costs could be overkill, especially in colder countries. The more you know, the more you can identify quick-fire ways to shave energy costs.

Nothing should be sacred.

Eco-friendly policies

The greatest asset to any business is its workforce. Educating your team on the small ways they can save energy and introducing new policies within the data centre can significantly impact power consumption over a sustained period.

This can include:

• Switching off unused or unnecessary equipment
• Regular energy checks for cooling and lighting systems to be running at optimal efficiency
• Running on low-usage systems during off-peak hours
• Air conditioning reductions during cooler seasons
• Pioneering a heat reuse scheme
• Exploring alternative cooling systems that draw less power.

Shutdown servers

Mothballing equipment by placing it on standby or a complete shutdown when it’s not in use is simple yet incredibly effective.

Is an older server no longer in use? Shut it down. Is the backup generator constantly running? Put them on standby. As part of a top-to-bottom energy audit, you can identify what equipment can be mothballed without negatively impacting the system’s performance.

More efficient cooling options

Conducting an energy audit will highlight the major contributors to data centre power consumption. Cooling equipment will likely be among the most significant energy users, primarily if the data centre uses traditional air cooling.

Air cooling requires large, inefficient air conditioning units to keep data centre equipment at optimal temperatures. As much as 50% of a data centre’s energy use is dedicated to air cooling systems. That’s a lot of pounds and pence.

The sheer airflow required to maintain those temperatures is very costly, and a substantial amount is wasted due to air leakage. More air must be pumped around the data centre to account for waste, consuming even more energy. It’s a vicious cycle.

Overhauling a data centre’s cooling infrastructure can seem daunting, but ultimately it will future-proof infrastructure against more energy price hikes and unlock the potential for more efficient, denser racks. Not only that, but the alternative options are also far more cost-effective and better for the environment than traditional air cooling.

Free cooling

Free cooling is one alternative that uses outside air to cool a data centre rather than relying on inefficient mechanical cooling equipment. By drawing in cool air from the outside via ducts and circulating it with fans, data centres can be kept at the right temperature in colder climate regions.

For hotter climates, liquid immersion cooling is the ultimate energy-saving solution for data centres. Free cooling largely relies on outside air, so it may not be suitable for data centres in hotter regions.

Fluids for financial gains

The liquid coolant utilised in immersion cooling is another option. It is designed to handle very high heat loads and is also easier to monitor proactively. The equipment is placed directly in the liquid coolant, allowing operators to register precise temperature readings for running the data centre.

There is no need for costly air conditioning units or large fans, as the high thermal conductivity of liquid immersion is solely responsible for maintaining the data centre.

Cost will also be saved by future-proofing the data centre infrastructure, allowing for far greater compute density in a smaller data centre footprint. Immersion also reduces equipment failure rates by eliminating fans and protecting the IT equipment from the harmful effects of vibration, static, condensation, and dust. And while there are concerns about potential leakage issues, these are very rare and are far less common than those found with air cooling systems, requiring less expensive maintenance.

Start small, consider the big picture

Bringing down the energy consumption of data centres will continue to pick up steam as an initiative for boards in the next year. The C-suite, whether it’s the executive team overseeing an enterprise facility, colocation estate or running a data centre provider, care about three things: control; consistency; cost.

The global energy crisis ripped these fundamentals away from executives and raised the critical question – what’s the cost of doing nothing? And if we don’t stay in stasis, what’s the best way to protect our facilities, bottom line and ESG credentials?

These question marks don’t dissipate with an energy audit. Instead, they prompt a unified approach built around explicit business action, both in the short-term and for more systemic alterations that safeguard against future energy cost flare-ups or more significant global change.

The sooner you understand the full scope of your energy consumption, the faster you can recover the three Cs – control, consistency, and cost.

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