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Data Centre Sustainability Challenges Facing Higher Education

By Blog, Thought Leadership

Data centre sustainability has been a priority within the industry for over a decade. Yet, today, data centres still account for 3% of the global electricity supply and 2% of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

This makes sustainability a priority for the higher education sector as institutions increasingly analyse how they power and centralise their IT operations.

We’ll discuss the sector’s primary sustainability issues and what can be done to address them.

What are the environmental issues associated with data centres?

It’s no great secret that data centres raise many environmental questions. According to Gartner, it’s predicted that 75% of data centres will employ some type of sustainability program by 2027.
Environmental concerns and cost optimisation drive the path toward sustainability. In short, it could be profitable to go green in today’s world.
So, what environmental issues must a data centre sustainability program examine?

Energy consumption

Data centres consume vast amounts of energy to power their servers and associated infrastructure. This incredible energy demand impacts greenhouse gas emissions and places additional burdens on electricity grids worldwide.

As the industry grows, this is becoming an even bigger problem. Today, it’s estimated that data centres use more fossil fuels than the entire global aviation industry.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Data centres often draw their energy from non-renewable sources, such as coal and natural gas. Due to this energy need, data centres are directly responsible for significant carbon dioxide emissions. It’s why data centres emit 300 megatons of CO2 annually.

Heat generation

During their day-to-day operations, data centres generate massive amounts of heat. All these facilities require intricate cooling systems to maintain optimal conditions.
These cooling mechanisms require energy, and improperly designed cooling systems can lead to excessive wastage.

Water usage

Water is often used as the primary medium for dissipating heat. In particular, large-scale data centres will use water-based cooling systems. This can tremendously strain local water supplies, especially in regions already facing drought conditions, such as California.

Electronic waste

The technology behind the average data centre changes all the time, and this means that data centre owners and operators must constantly implement upgrades and replacements for their equipment. Over time, this creates a tremendous amount of electronic waste.

Material use

Did you know that many of a data centre’s emissions come directly from its construction?

Various materials and chemicals are used to bring a data centre to life. These include:

  • Cabling
  • Fire suppression systems
  • Cooling fluids

Improper management could lead to harmful substances making their way into the environment.

Land use

Where you build your data centre matters. Sometimes, data centres may require deforestation and disruption to local ecosystems to build. Unfortunately, large-scale data centres require massive amounts of space due to their physical infrastructure.

How do data centres work in higher education settings?

With these environmental issues in mind, do higher education settings need data centres to power themselves?

Higher education institutions rely on data centres for a variety of functions, and this is why schools, colleges and research labs often require data centres to reach their potential.

Some of the ways data centres work in higher education include:

Infrastructure Support – Data centres act as the underlying infrastructure necessary to control the IT systems of a higher education institution. Without these hardware components, keeping everything up and running would become impossible.

Data Storage/Backup – Data centres are designed to act as central repositories for all the digital data produced by students, faculty and administrative staff. They also offer robust disaster recovery functions.

Computing Resources – Additional computing resources are often required for the computational needs of higher education institutions, including High-Performance Computing (HPC) and complex data analysis.

Application Hosting – Higher education data centres may also use institutional applications, such as Learning Management Systems (LMS). Crucially, they are centrally managed, making a data centre essential.

Connectivity – Data centres do much more than house data and power applications. They also act as network hubs to unify your institution’s entire network infrastructure, guaranteeing high-speed connectivity at all times.

The importance of data centres for higher education

Why are data centres so critical to higher education institutions? Today, the IT needs of higher education have evolved. As new technologies are implemented in the classroom, and researchers increasingly call upon next-generation technology, dedicated data centres have become a must-have.
Some of the purposes of data centres include:
  • Data storage
  • Data management
  • HPC resources
  • Facilitating innovation
  • Teaching and learning support
  • Institutional operations
  • Collaboration
  • Campus networking
  • Data security
  • Data compliance

The data challenges faced by higher education

Higher education organisations face a range of challenges associated with data. This leaves sustainability a problem because the answer is not to scale back IT operations and infrastructure.

As you can see, data centres are necessary to function optimally in today’s day and age. It means all data challenges faced by higher education must be solved through the lens of sustainability.

So, what are the primary data challenges faced by higher education?

Silos – Higher education systems must prevent data from becoming fragmented and unintegrated.

Quality – Ensuring a high degree of accuracy and consistency across all systems is another major challenge.

Security – All institutions must meet the highest data security standards to protect students and staff. Moreover, security is a huge part of compliance with domestic and international regulations.

Governance – Governance pertains to how relevant stakeholders handle and manage data. These strict policies are required to create consistency and security across your institution.

Systems – The physical infrastructure powering your data is also a priority. If running an in-house data centre, or outsourcing, you must keep your finger on the pulse to ensure that you have the physical hardware that’s fit for purpose.

Despite these immense challenges, confronting the sustainability elephant in the room and meeting the basic standards of a world-class data centre is possible.

How can universities make data centres more sustainable?

Efforts are already being made to improve the carbon footprint of data centres. One initiative is the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, which pledges only to purchase 100% renewable energy to power data centres.
However, individual data centres may need to make substantial changes to meet the standard of a genuinely climate-neutral data centre.
Here are some ways universities can take action to make data centres more sustainable today.

Upgrade to new equipment

It may seem counterproductive, but keeping your data centre equipped with the latest equipment makes you more energy efficient overall. Older data centres with core electrical and mechanical components, like Static Transfer Switches (STSs) and Uninterruptible Power Systems (UPSs), are more prone to this.
When disposing of older equipment, ensure all components are correctly recycled to reduce your footprint further.

Minimise bypass airflow

Did you know that data centre cooling accounts for 40% of total energy consumption?
Optimising airflow is one way to improve energy efficiency. By reducing bypass airflow, which doesn’t remove heat, you can increase your cooling capacity and lower your costs whilst reducing hotspots.

Go ECO mode

UPSs waste vast amounts of energy. Instead, switch to Economy (ECO) mode to minimise losses from poor energy usage.
Whilst ECO mode lacks popularity due to increased noise and other power issues, ECO mode can deliver up to 99% efficiency, compared to 94% on any other mode.

Use server virtualisation

Server virtualisation allows physical servers to be divided into multiple virtual machines capable of running separately from the physical servers. Server utilisation is one of the best moves you can make because it can:
  • Improve server utilisation.
  • Consolidate space.
  • Improve equipment usage.
  • Reduce energy consumption.

Equipment recycling

Data centres can drastically bolster their green credentials by committing to equipment recycling and reuse.
For example, Google has reused its data centre equipment since 2007. Unwanted parts are transferred from one server to repair or replace another.
Following these same principles can help you to reduce your wastage. Working with a green electronic waste company can ensure that broken, faulty and unneeded parts are correctly recycled.

How can the education sector implement a sustainable data centre strategy?

The education sector can take several steps to move to a sustainable data centre model. Several options exist, but it all begins with defining a clear strategy. It could include designing a green data centre or gradually replacing parts of an existing one.
Some options for building your strategy for sustainability can include:
  • Monitoring energy usage to identify areas for improvement.
  • Implementing power management systems to shut down idle servers.
  • Deploying energy-efficient technologies.
  • Using renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
Understandably, this is a significant undertaking for any higher education institution. Don’t worry if you need to move from legacy processes and systems to a new green future. Keysource can help you every step of the way!

Speak to our team today for tailored university data centre solutions

At Keysource, we specialise in designing and consulting on sustainable data centres for the higher education sector. Our expert team brings decades of experience to the table and an understanding of the unique needs of the education sector.

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