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The data centre industry is under increasing pressure to devise and implement sustainability strategies and measures to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Whilst the topic has been heavily discussed, there’s more action needed to be taken to achieve net zero carbon targets.

So, what does the practical steps and actions look like to get us where we need to be as an industry? To create an effective data centre sustainability strategy.

The large consumption of energy by data centres

The growing focus of data centre sustainability comes as no surprise with 4% of global carbon emissions attributed to ICT services (set to grow to 14% by 2040). It is estimated that the data centre industry is going to consume 1/5 of the global energy by 2025 so energy efficiency and sustainability will continue to be one of the most (if not the most) important topics in our industry over the next 12 months, and beyond.

There is little doubt that the data centre industry must act now. Data centres are energy intensive, new and old, and with huge reliant upon them in our everyday lives we must do more to reduce the global climate impact they have.

It also comes as investors, data centre operators and IT Directors commit to carbon neutrality in-line with an ESG agenda.

The challenge is then thrown into force at a time when data centres continue to support organisations drive for digitalisation and demand grows at a rapid pace. The exponential growth of data consumption isn’t slowing, and the way we work, shop, socialise etc is increasingly within a digital world, growing the needs and demands of data centres.

With continued investment and expansion comes the greatest opportunity to do things better and efficiently. We need to address these challenges through better design, engineering, operations and wider mutual collaboration across the whole lifecycle of the facility.

The industry has already proven itself to be agile, innovative and responsive to market changes in recent years and once again is being called upon as it supports global digitalization, coupled with a holistic approach to net zero targets.

Sustainability Measures In Data Centres – Is PUE Enough?

In terms of sustainability measures for data centres, it’s fair to say that since 2007 it has all been about Power Usage Efficiency (PUE). It has been used as the control point, in designing data centres, building data centres, and operating data centres. It’s helped us to measure energy consumption as the industry has exploded, and supported the drive and challenge to design and operate efficient M&E.

However, when the green grid originally set out to develop a metric to help us to improve energy efficiency of our facilities perhaps they didn’t quite envisage that PUE would be used so widely. With this it has arguably turned into a misuse of the metric, to a certain extent.

Data centre operators have used PUE to demonstrate a competitive differentiator, to go above and beyond other operators in the market, and it has been used to compare facilities that are in different geographical locations, and potentially even facilities that serve different purposes, have different levels of resilience, and different levels of fixed losses. Not quite the original intended use to aid us in the optimisation of a single facility.

Where it has been used appropriately, there’s no doubt it has helped operators enormously to measure the impact of the changes that they’ve made, and have had on the overall energy consumption of the data centre. It has helped us to drive and challenge efficient M&E designs for the better.

But PUE alone isn’t a metric for sustainability. We have to build upon it.

Recent data from the Uptime Institute shows for the most part, organisations are still looking at power related sustainability metrics, with 82% tracking power consumption and 70% tracking PUE. It also revealed that only 40% are tracking service utilisation. This reinforces that the focus on just power needs to change.

Data Centre Sustainability: Shifting to a whole life impact

Historically, sustainable decisions and considerations around the facilities have related to commercial incentives and, lower operating costs. Most recently we have seen the shift to look at other elements such as carbon, but we’re still limiting, to a certain extent, that scope one and two are direct or indirect emissions, or relating to the facilities themselves, and the energy with which they consume.

Moving forward it’s important that to meet the goals that have been set out by the UN, from an environmental, a social, and a governance perspective, that we continue to do the good work that we’ve done to date, but that we are moving to what a future net-zero data centre needs to look like.

Of course, this needs to consider the commercial incentives alongside best practice and meet standards and guidance, but essentially a wholesale change and approach is required for data centres to truly hit net zero targets.

So, what exactly does the next generation data centre need to have, to have sustainability at its core, not just for when it’s built, but across its whole lifecycle.

How To Achieve A Sustainable Data Centre: Whole Life Net Zero

For those who own and/or operate data centres the development in facility efficiency and scope 3 emissions are key to reducing this cost, and it is important not to leave it too late to influence given the time it takes to implement practical changes against a rising carbon charge.

Sustainability In Data Centre Design & Construction

Before embarking on design, considerations around the location of the facilities, or perhaps, who the data centre is being located close to and seek any opportunities to reuse the waste, for example if there’s a greenhouse close by or a swimming pool. There’s also debate around whether edge data centres lend themselves better to be in a newer residential development to use the waste heat. As an industry we should work collaboratively with other industries not just to be less of a consumer of energy but strive towards being an energy supplier to nearby facilities too.

Moving through to the construction of the data centre, ethical sourcing is key. Materials are a huge factor such as steel, there are techniques in steel manufacturing that will ultimately lower the carbon as part of that is emitted within the process. There are techniques and methods with cement and concrete that aren’t necessarily new but can also lower the carbon. As such manufacturers have started to look at the availability of environmental product declarations as part of their systems and their offerings.

Decisions around infrastructure and products used within the facility have predominantly been based on a return of investment not an energy proposition. The sourcing of the components, the carbon within those components, or the ethical social sourcing of the components and materials is the next step.

The drive, and measurement, has to not only consider the impact of facilities in operation, but also the impact of the supply chain used to deploy them, and the materials used to construct them.

Moving to whole life and embodied carbon, it’s not just about how you operate, it’s about what you do to build it, and how you build it.

Part of this challenge is how we address that measurement, and managing the whole lifecycle carbon reductions initially through assessment at design stage, but also throughout the ongoing operation.

DCIM & Software to support data centre sustainability

The starting point is simple, understand and know what you’ve got. It’s critical that data centre operators get full visibility of the utilisation of their compute to then optimise it. Deployment of DCIM, or other software tools, can enable organisations to see the compute, storage, and networking they operate, where it is and crucially what the hardware is.

Once a level of understanding is in place it can present several opportunities for optimisation across the IT hardware. This could for example show that current servers are under utilised and that these could be consolidated, or that a technology refresh is needed to replace equipment with new, more efficient hardware.

With recent enhancements in software technology, DCIM can play a vital role in reducing power to meet sustainability goals. It will help to make informed choices by collecting and leveraging data and enabling the technology to drive value and reduce power usage and carbon. However, the software won’t do this alone as it needs to be part of the broader, and a consistent, approach.

IT Hardware Presents Data Centre Sustainability Opportunity

With 65% of data centre power use in the IT load, we have to look at ways in which we can reduce this. In partnership with Interact, a machine learning software tool that optimises energy and carbon usage of servers, we can analyse and report on the current state of on-premise data centre IT hardware. This now starts to present huge opportunity!

Considerations include assessing server hardware to replace and/ or what components to upgrade, server/ blade/ rack consolidations that can be achieved (usually 55% or higher, delivering the same compute performance at the same utilisation level) and the energy and critical environmental impact (CO2) these changes will have from a cost and time perspective.

Results from recent data centre projects over five years include over £900,000 savings and 2,800 tonnes of CO2. By focusing on the IT, the data centre industry can significantly reduce operational running costs, while at the same time, completely eradicating massive amounts of waste on energy.

Data Centre Operations

Nearly 90% of data centre suppliers and operators believe AI will improve data centre operational efficiency and availability in the next five years. So, when we’re talking about operations, software will be vital to continue to develop and deploy considering energy management, metering, and then extending that to utility and fuel monitoring, etc.

So operationally, there’s still a lot that we need to do, and additional governance is to be expected going forwards.

Sustainability At The Core Of Data Centre Strategy

The shift to achieving net zero requires a transition in the way we actually understand and think about sustainability, it’s much more than just the M&E. The sooner we start to understand and create real strategies that include all of the elements (above) of a data centre’s lifecycle the approach to net zero can be achieved.

Yes we have made significant progress as an industry by measuring PUE, but let’s not forget that in reality your PUE will probably get worse with more efficiency in your IT. In addressing the elements of the entire data centre lifecycle we’re on a journey to consider not just the M&E, not just the IT, not just how we build the facility and the supply chain, but most importantly everything in tandem.

This also must be viewed as continuous improvement; it is not a one-off exercise. There’s also no one size fits all, which is why it’s fundamental to have the tools in place to truly understand what you have. Whole life assessments are critical to support defining the brief, setting KPI’s and measures, and creating your data centre sustainability strategy that not only works now, but looks to the future too.

There’s a number of tools, advice, technology and innovative products on the market and we recognise that often this can actually cause confusion over solutions. So, let’s be clear, the road to sustainable data centres starts with assessment, with analysis supporting the development of a clear roadmap with a methodical approach, including justification around recommended solutions, ROI and minimising any downtime or disruption.

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