What Are the Key Sustainability Issues Facing Data Centres?

Written by Anthony Carter, MD, Connotations Publishing Ltd Published 2022-03-29 09:00:27

Much has been said in recent years about data centre sustainability and resilience. Contrary to what many people believe, the two do not have to be in opposition to one another. It is entirely possible for a data centre to be both resilient and sustainable. It's a matter of recognising key sustainability issues and addressing them within the context of resilience.

So, what are the key sustainability issues facing data centres right now? They are many and varied, but most centre around power consumption. Data centres continue to consume a greater share of the world's total electricity capacity. The trend is unlikely to reverse. As the need for data grows, so will the need for data centres to consume more power.


Data Centre Power Sources

Numerous online blog posts cite estimates that suggest data centres could consume as much as 10% of the world's total power output by 2030. It is not clear where such estimates come from. Regardless, so much energy being consumed by the world's data centres leads to the question of where power is being sourced from.

Energy coming from grids powered by fossil fuels is one of the chief impediments to future sustainability. For a data centre to truly move toward a more sustainable future, ownership must find a way to rely less on fossil fuels and more on green energy production.

Solar, wind, and water are all on the table. So are geothermal and biomass options. A data centre can only be truly sustainable when its power is sourced more from green energy than fossil fuels.


Data Centre Scaling

Scalability is now a fundamental offering of nearly every data centre in the world. Customers demand it. Unfortunately, traditional scaling solutions require data centres to deploy and utilise hardware unnecessarily. It leads to idling servers that consume energy despite not being used. Scaling can lead to inefficient provisioning and a lack of shared resources.

The solution to many scaling problems is adoption of the hyperscale model. Under this model, cloud infrastructure is deployed in volume. However, it is configured so that servers can be seamlessly added or dropped to meet demand. Hyperscaling can be combined with virtualisation to greatly reduce power consumption.


Data Centre Cooling

A typical data centre dedicates the majority of its power resources to cooling. Older hardware needs to be kept at cooler temperatures to keep it operating. When older hardware is combined with inefficient scaling solutions, a data centre ends up consuming excess amounts of electricity to keep servers cool.

One popular solution over the last few years has been to concentrate building new data centres in cooler environments. Taking advantage of colder temperatures and naturally windy conditions allows for less active, more passive, cooling solutions. Yet there are places around the world where passive cooling is extremely challenging.

Hardware designers are working on that problem by developing hardware capable of operating at higher temperatures. Likewise, a number of manufacturers have invested quite a bit in liquid cooling as an alternative to air cooling. Both technologies have viable applications.


Server Efficiency

Power consumption becomes more sustainable when it becomes more efficient. Our own homes demonstrate as much. In the drive to achieve sustainability goals, modern society is constantly looking for new ways to increase energy efficiency. Data centres should be doing no less.

Over provisioning servers leads directly to energy inefficiency by consuming resources even when the servers are idle. And that's just one way data centres demonstrate a lack of energy efficiency. There are many others. The lesson to be learned here is that increasing energy efficiency requires a concerted effort to redesign how hardware is deployed and utilised.


Hardware Upgrades

Finally, data centres have traditionally taken an all-or-nothing approach to hardware upgrades. For instance, a round of hardware purchased this year is scheduled for replacement so many years down the road. The data centre replaces rotating batches of hardware on an annual basis, irrespective of whether every piece in a given batch really needs to be upgraded.

A modular hardware model that allows for upgrading only what is absolutely necessary improves sustainability by reducing needless waste. In a modular system, each piece can be considered for upgrade based on its own specifications, performance, etc. Not only that, but upgrades can also be optimised to meet both current demand and future expectations.

Data centres are the focal point for digital life in the modern world. As such, they can lead the way toward a more sustainable future by providing an example that other industries can follow. Today's sustainability challenges can be met with reasonable solutions. Data centre owners have a responsibility to do no less.

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