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Energised for change: how data centres are getting more sustainable

© Chris Koontz/ChrisKPhotographyZachary Smith
Zachary Smith

Data centers account for 3% of the global electricity supply and produce an estimated 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste globally per year when server, storage and networking equipment are thrown away.

Zachary Smith, head of Edge Infrastructure at Equinix (the world’s largest data centre operator) and President of the Board of Directors at Open19 Foundation talks us through some of the sustainability solutions for data centres.

Sustainability is a team sport. While companies can tout their individual ESG reports, moving the needle globally will require myriad solutions, diverse partnerships, and opening innovation to the largest audience possible. And data centers, known for their notorious appetite for energy in order to meet their growing role in society, represent a huge opportunity for innovation.

As digital transformation continues to accelerate across industries, companies around the world are creating, processing, and storing more data. The result is “an explosion in the reliance on exponential computing power in data centers” – massive buildings that require huge amounts of energy to power the equipment within them and significant resources to cool the heat that these machines put off.

By January 2021, nearly 8,000 data centers were in operation globally. According to MIT, “a single data center can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes” and some data centers “collectively devour more energy than some countries”.

The opportunity

With the rise of technology-based businesses and new digital experiences such as hybrid multi-cloud, SaaS services, AI/ML, autonomous cars, etc., data centers are under pressure as they play a tangible and significant role in contributing to or reducing the environmental impact of IT.

New legislation, resource shortages including power and water, and increased public pressure on climate impacting industries is changing mindsets and methodologies, with big companies like Google and Apple pledging public commitments to make their technology footprints carbon-free.  As an industry, companies and service providers are also finding inspiration from the old environmentalist playbook – reduce, reuse, recycle.

How to reduce energy use

As enterprises look to operate their IT workloads more sustainably, energy efficiency has become a primary focus. Data centers have several options for gaining these efficiencies, including things like:

Firstly switching from 12V to 48V architecture. Without getting overly technical, the huge amount of power consumed by data centers (and the increasing density of the computers within those data centers) has necessitated the transition from a traditional 12V server attach power feed to a more efficiency and scalable 48V rack level power solution.

Compared to 12V, which includes multiple points of conversion and energy loss along the way, 48V server racks are “more efficient both in heat dissipation, size, and cost” – which basically means that as processing power goes and server density increases, transitioning to 48V native power can help use less energy, lose less energy in conversion and support alternative, sustainable power generation such as hydrogen or solar.

The second is to cut data centre waste.  There are 20-50 million metric tons of electronic waste (e-waste) generated worldwide each year, including old server, storage and networking equipment.

Perhaps the simplest way to minimize the carbon footprint of data centers is just to minimize the amount of waste generated. Reducing components like extra power supplies (just one power shelf per rack, instead of two per server times 30+ servers rack), removing rails (just using the brick cage), and practicing good cable management are all methods to abate data centre excess.

Another means of reducing waste is through open specifications. This ensures compatibility of various manufacturers’ products at interfaces and less need for adapters and transition pieces which are wasteful.

Another important options to lower energy use through better cooling.  One challenge in today’s power dense server environments and the data centers that support them is the amount of energy used simply to cool them.

With air-based cooling, an increasing amount of energy (as a % of the power used for IT workload vs supporting the things around it) is used to move air around the data centre or to suck the air through the server using small, high RPM fans.

With CPU’s, GPU’s, accelerators and memory all getting hotter, a huge amount of energy is used simply to move air across those components.  Moving to more efficient liquid cooling options, from full immersion to cold plate single or dual phase technologies, can focus the heat extraction and reduce or remove the need for all those fans.

Liquid cooling reduces cooling energy as:

  • Heat is removed directly and efficiently from the hottest parts such as CPUs and GPUs
  • Pumping cooling liquid consumers much less energy than moving air to accomplish the same amount of cooling
  • Freer cooling/economization is possible

The importance of reuse

Standardising commodity components around technology deployments is the key to extending the life of data centers. This includes standardizing hardware at the rack level to avoid having to do a rip and replace every time a customer upgrades its servers or the technology within those servers.

Enabling the re-use of power supplies, cabling, sheet metal and cooling technology could dramatically extend the usable life of big, carbon intensive components of every IT deployment.  Standardising a rack environment for server, storage, and networking also enables the easy and cheap (with a low carbon footprint) movement of servers from one location to another where they can be reused for another purpose or workload.

The open-source movement that transformed software development is gaining traction amongst hardware developers and supply chains with open hardware and computing ecosystems continuing to expand and adopt community-driven standards.

Standardisation is best done with an open-sourced, community-based approach and needs to include everybody across the entire value chain – not only the largest enterprises and hyperscalers. This includes providing accessibility for large, medium, and small-scale data centre operators and technology users without the scale or resources to self-fund the entire innovation chain.

And what about recycling?

A big part of sustainability involves accelerating circular economies, which is the process of “redesigning products to be more durable, repairable, and recyclable” and kept in circulation for as long as possible. This can take several forms, from stripping parts for their raw mineral elements to physically repurposing equipment or components.

That’s part of the reason many are advocating for open, industry standard for data centre hardware form factors, which would make IT equipment easier to install, take apart, repair and re-purpose. Standardisation would also help with everyday processes like packaging, allowing companies to recycle the same boxes for shipping, reduce waste, and extend the lifespan of the data centre.

Liquid cooling also enables recovery of high-grade heat as a byproduct which can be used for district heating, industrial process heat, water purification, domestic water heating, etc.  This heat ‘recycle’ offsets additional energy which would have been required otherwise for such needs.

Energised for change

There are varying estimates, but data centers currently account for about 1-3% of total electricity worldwide, which (in a worse-case scenario) could rise to 8% by as soon as 2030. While efficiency in data centers will continue to improve, there is ongoing speculation whether “it can keep pace with the increase in demand for data services” and what impact worsening economic conditions may have.

There has been a lot of talk and activity around technologies for energy-efficient data centres and supercomputing to reduce resources consumed by the technology supply chain and reduce the carbon footprint related to technology use.

Sustainability in general today is a board-level issue due to regulations and larger societal concerns. There is a significant movement underway around sustainability for computing hardware and there are positive signs that companies are energized for change.


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