Are data centres destroying the environment?

Are data centres destroying the environment?

Vik Malyala, senior vice president at Supermicro, explores how data centres can save 350 tons of e-waste annually and protect the environment. 

37 years. That’s how long we could keep the lights on in Las Vegas with the energy that can be saved by green data centres. Looking at the reality though, it’s only 12% of today’s data centres that are green. A baffling number, given that a sustainable approach would not only help the environment by reducing e-waste and consuming less power but also save data centre operators millions of dollars.

Data centres have long become one of the most important parts of business infrastructure in our data-driven economy. With 5G networks and an ever-increasing number of IoT devices, it becomes clear why data centres are crucial for our world as data usage is only continuing to grow.

Scaling our data centre energy consumption

The direct link to climate change might be quite radical but looking at the energy savings of green data centres and the amount of them that are deployed worldwide it is worth bringing things into perspective: According to analyst firm IDC, in 2012, there were only 500,000 data centres worldwide that were handling global traffic, but today there are more than 8 million.

Every year, millions of data centres around the world are eliminating metric tons of hardware and consume amounts of electricity that would be enough to power whole countries (about 1-1.5% of the global power consumption today), which leads to a carbon emission comparable to the global airline industry (prior Covid19). Technological advancements are difficult to forecast, but several models predict that by 2030 the energy usage of data centres could represent more than 10% of the global electricity supply - if nobody puts measures in place to prevent this scenario. Such growth would, therefore, also affect both gas emissions and e-waste produced. Data centre researchers are currently expecting these numbers to double every four years.

All-together, this paints a challenging picture for the future of our environment and the existence of data centres in it. Luckily, more and more forward-thinking businesses and industry leaders are addressing this problem in innovative ways. However, there are still many missed opportunities around data centre efficiencies. Beginning with the fact that, according to a green data centre survey from 2019, only half of the data centres consider any green data centres metrics as success factors and only 12% are designed for an optimal power effectiveness in the first place. That is despite the fact that sticking to older equipment can cost the average data centre annually up to $500,000 (£404,950). Respondents of the survey noted they are repurposing existing equipment as well as utilising longer refresh cycles. Unfortunately, older equipment is less efficient due to the inherent design technology of newer equipment. Consequently, businesses adopting new technologies will be more competitive and potentially greener.

With innovation for a greener approach

Understanding the problem is the first step, finding a solution is the next one. Data centres don’t have to negatively impact our environment anymore and there are several ways to tackle the mentioned challenges. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that if 80% of servers in the US operated at optimised hyperscale efficiency it would save 25% on energy usage.

For operators that can’t afford to transition to a hyperscale data centre, a new category of resource-optimised systems for data centres have risen on the market. In the last few years, many new server

technologies and data centre architectures have been developed to focus on maximising resources and efficiency while minimising energy needs. That addresses cooling, design as well as the lifespan of the hardware.

Many roads lead to power effectiveness

Cooling techniques

The overall magic words are ‘improved power effectiveness’. Not only can green data centres reduce the operating costs, but also the environmental impact.

Quite a significant amount of the energy consumption within data centres comes from the cooling of the servers. While the average data centre temperature lies between 23°C–24°C depending on the facility, the previously mentioned green data centre survey from Supermicro has shown that more than 30% of the data centre inlets measure temperatures above 25°C (with some ranging up to 29°C). And the trend – given the increase of data – is going towards higher temperatures.

Therefore, developing superiors cooling techniques is crucial. A popular solution is to simply locate data centres in cold climates and use free-air cooling. Thereby, outside air is used to cool the servers, which requires less computer room air conditioner equipment. Green data centre energy savings from free-air cooling can be significant, from 4 to 5 per cent for every 0.56°C increase in server inlet temperatures. Looking at the average yearly OPEX savings per rack this would range from $6,314 for a relatively small data centre inlet temperature increase up to $14,996 for the largest inlet temperature increase.

Another way is to leave fewer servers on: Facebook invented a system called Autoscale in 2014 that reduces the number of servers that need to be on during low-traffic hours, leading to power savings of about 10–15%. Another example is Google, which has turned to AI to optimise its internal cooling systems by matching weather and operational conditions, reducing cooling energy usage by almost 40%.

But there’s also the opposite approach that is gaining popularity in the IT industry and it goes towards designing server systems that can perform at higher temperatures without impacting the reliability. Naturally this requires significantly less cooling—and thus less electricity—for the systems.

Increased rack power density

Besides the cooling techniques, there’s also the angle of the amount of cooling units that needs to be taken into account: Data centre power density delivers green power effectiveness by fitting more servers into smaller spaces. This decreases the data centre space and thus, the costs to cool the place. This can be realised with multi-node and blade systems, which share fans and power supplies, instead of having one rackmount server that needs individual supplies. Switching to these systems can make the process about 10-20% more efficient.

Greener computing thanks to system refresh cycles & E-waste reduction

Another area of focus is to make the power usage more efficient also from a hardware perspective. Because e-waste produced by data centres makes for two million tons of e-waste each year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Plus, technology is developing fast and legacy systems are often less efficient – from a power as well as from a performance perspective. Therefore, it’s essential for data centres to have the latest tech features. But without producing more waste. The majority of data centres refresh their hardware every four years or longer –quite long in tech years. One solution that solves both the refreshing and the environmental problem, are disaggregated servers. A recent innovation that enables a modular, sustainable infrastructure that allows to only optimise selected parts of the system when necessary. Having memory and CPU disaggregated makes these independently upgradeable sub-systems. It allows data centres to be more selective and to refresh their systems faster. For example, why would you replace the whole light fixture, when it’s only a more powerful light bulb that’s needed. This leads to enhanced performance but also lower energy consumption, less e-waste and an overall reduction of the refresh cycle costs as it’s not a whole server that needs to be replaced. To put this into numbers: A disaggregated rack scale design can save between 45 and 60% in hardware refresh costs and up to 60% in HVAC costs.

The future lies in education

The most important next step right now is education – we need to help companies to realise that the importance and benefits of more eco-friendly data centres are enormous. For the companies as much as for the environment. We know the amount of data won’t shrink, quite the opposite. Many companies already rely on their own data centres, which they operate themselves. Even more reason to ensure the technologies that are already available to counter the growing data centre dilemma are being implemented. Our data centres don’t have to harm the environment, if we take the proper actions today. Let’s optimise their performance and make the world greener at the same time.