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Are AI and cloud the future of data centre sustainability?

Image: Adobe Stock / liliya

The future of data centre sustainability – and the technologies being developed to sustain it – is bright, as long as organisations prioritise responsible practices, says Jo Debecker, Managing Partner and Global Head of Wipro FullStride Cloud.

The cloud and the rise of AI are tightly intertwined. AI systems running in the cloud have accounted for most of the rapid adoption we have seen in the last few years, and while this additional strain is exciting for business innovation, it also presents new challenges for sustainability.

Data centres consume a significant amount of energy, with estimates suggesting they currently account for around 1% of global electricity consumption. Further research suggests that they will emit the same amount of CO2 in 2050 as our entire planet does today if left to the current status quo. AI could supercharge this demand, complicating an already difficult path to more sustainable infrastructure operations.

However, just as AI and cloud pose a challenge to sustainability goals, they could also be a huge asset, with the former optimising business operations and improving efficiency.

Here is why solving the data centre sustainability problem is so important and how businesses can take advantage of emerging solutions to do it.

A global issue

The IEA has found that electricity consumption from data centres, AI and cryptocurrencies could double by 2026. Data centres consumed approximately 460 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity globally in 2022, with this figure is expected to grow significantly and reach over 1,000 TWh by 2060 – which is equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of Japan – in just a few years. This highlights the urgent need for sustainable solutions to reduce energy consumption and mitigate the environmental impact of data centres (and the overall technology stack).

These staggering statistics prove that data centre energy consumption is a major global issue. But some organisations may not know the best ways to make their business practices less environmentally impactful, and struggle with the ability to clearly quantify the impacts for measuring IT sustainability and the improvement activities required.

AI and cloud might add to increased energy consumption, but they can also help: with the right implementation, supported by suppliers who are committed to sustainable business processes as well as to a circular economy, companies can ensure their energy utilisation is efficient and help to reduce global emissions.

The power of AI and cloud

To address this issue, organisations can adopt sustainable and responsible AI practices. Used correctly, this technology can drive efficiencies in data centre sustainability by optimising energy usage, improving cooling systems and enhancing overall resource management. Major corporations such as Google have already put steps in place to reduce carbon emissions through AI, with the tech company designing a new $1 billion data centre to help the UK both meet its Net Zero goal and boost the growth of AI.

It’s important to note, however, that AI is still in its infancy when it comes to data centre usage. Therefore, the full environmental impact of running huge AI workloads in the cloud is yet to be fully understood. With many workloads still transitioning to the cloud, businesses may be unclear what the environmental impact of their AI projects will be. The key thing is to ensure they work with responsible suppliers that are genuinely committed to sustainable goals in the cloud.

While some companies may not know where to start with their data centre exit, there are ways to make sure this transition is seamless and successful. Leading cloud providers, including hyperscalers and top green data centre providers, are able to help by offering highly sophisticated and efficient infrastructure that handles energy requirements and carbon emissions with ease. These providers operate almost entirely on renewable energy, and some even repurpose the heat generated by IT systems to power entire cities, resulting in 100% zero-carbon emission centres (and proving that expert guidance can help set businesses on the right track).

Looking to the future

It’s clear that AI and GenAI, as well as cloud, will continue to revolutionise businesses across industries over the next few years. We can expect to see an increase in use cases for these technologies, as companies seek to leverage their power to drive growth and innovation.

These approaches are new to most business and technology leaders, with sustainable technology strategy, actions and metrics designed to guide them towards a more responsible way of working and managing across the technology stack emerging. However, now is the time to invest in this knowledge and new way of leading and running technology. It’s crucial that C-suite executives continue to hold technology leaders accountable for an intelligence ecosystem, that considers contributions to costs and impact.

We’ll soon see a significant surge in demand for energy from cloud data centres and edge data centres. As more and more companies rely on these facilities to store and process their data, providers who can demonstrate a responsible approach to delivering energy will emerge as the clear winners.

Organisations, including their technology services, are being held accountable to increasing Impact regulatory standards. The Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact will also require all providers to ensure that their data centres are compliant with optimal power usage effectiveness (PUE) standards. This means that sustainable practices are becoming new ways of working, as businesses work to reduce their carbon footprint and create a more environmentally friendly future.

Overall, the future of data centre sustainability – and the technologies being developed to sustain it – is bright, and we can expect to see continued growth and innovation in this space in the years to come. As businesses adapt to these new technologies, they’ll need to prioritise environmental responsibility to stay competitive and meet global corporate and governmental expectations – as well as the demands of consumers who care about the planet.

Picture of Jo Debecker
Jo Debecker
Managing Partner and Global Head of Wipro FullStride Cloud

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