By David Watkins, Solutions Director for VIRTUS Data Centres
Data centers are essential to daily life. From digital start-ups to global communications companies, and from banks to e-commerce giants, finding information at the click of a button has become a necessity. But, the convenience and speed of a digital economy can come with a significant cost to the environment.
It’s widely discussed that the data center industry is a contributor towards climate change and the pressure to reduce its environmental impact is high on the priority list of governments all over the world. When consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed the energy use of the world’s largest data centers it found that less than a quarter of the energy consumption is used to perform computations. The remaining 75 percent is used to keep the servers idling in case of increased activity – a huge drain on resources.
Fortunately, there are many ways to make energy-efficient and eco-friendly improvements to data center energy usage without negatively affecting the facilities themselves.
Making cooling more efficient
As data centers focus on building a “greener” infrastructure, improving the energy efficiency of cooling operations will be critical. On average, as much as 40 percent of a data center’s power consumption goes toward cooling the servers. Redundant circuits and power parts consume large amounts of energy for each kilowatt of energy generated – and most providers incur extra costs through redundant cooling and systems, which are kept on standby for peak usage. It is important to cut back on such energy consumption, redirecting efforts into current requirements in order to save on energy outlay and expense.
To mitigate this energy usage, the industry is already innovating at a pace, and is fast developing ways to keep equipment cool while, at the same time, minimizing the environmental impact. For example, a Frankfurt data center has reduced its water consumption through an on-site reverse osmosis water treatment plant, and harvested rainwater to feed the plants that cover the exterior walls and roof. Outside air is used for cooling more than 60 percent of the time in this innovative design.
Google’s Hamina, Finland data center makes use of seawater for cooling purposes, and Facebook adopted a cooling system at its Lulea, Sweden, data center that uses the chilly outside air to ensure its equipment is kept at the optimum temperature.
VIRTUS Data Centres in the UK is continually looking at how to optimize cooling technology. To keep its facilities as efficient as possible, the company uses a variety of innovative design elements for greater efficiency while actually lowering costs; this includes air flooded data halls, utilizing hot aisle containment, and cooling using a variety of industry leading technologies.
Harnessing renewable energy
Data centers have a range of components which make up their energy footprint, but electricity is the primary energy input in daily operations. All the equipment – servers, storage, networking – is powered by electricity, which means the environmental impact of a data center is largely dependent on where that electricity comes from.
The ICT sector is already world-leading in its adoption of energy from renewable resources, and the data center industry is at the front of the pack. Indeed, according to a study published in Science in February, while there has been an increase in global data-center energy consumption over the past decade, this growth is negligible compared with the rise of workloads and deployed hardware during that time.
Google is the world’s largest purchaser of renewable power, meeting its requirements through power purchase agreements; direct contracts with renewable generators that create additional utility-scale renewable capacity, and there are plenty of other data center success stories too.
A good example is a campus in the southwestern tip of Iceland, which runs almost entirely on geothermal and hydroelectric power. The Icelandic data center owners claim theirs to be the world’s first carbon-neutral data center, and the industry is suitably impressed. BMW has already moved a large portion of its German clusters to the campus, and more organizations look set to follow.
London based VIRTUS Data Centres ensures that green credentials are in evidence. All of the energy consumed at its facilities is from 100 per cent renewable sources thanks to partnerships with companies like Bryt Energy who generates power from wind, solar and tidal sources.
A holistic approach
Being environmentally friendly is not a binary achievement – there are “shades” of green, and some providers are doing better than others – environmental ambitions must be built into every aspect of data center construction and maintenance.
From ensuring buildings meet BREEAM standards during construction, to choosing energy star-rated appliances and equipment, there is plenty that data center providers can do to minimize their environmental impact. The best companies also look at adjunct areas to their core business, such as how staff are getting to and from the data center and transport links, optimizing the use of public transport and installing charging points for electric vehicles.
Some data centers are already working hard to mitigate the environmental effects of a technology hungry society. But, there clearly is much work to be done. It is clear that the industry needs to continue to take action and accelerate its search for new ways to minimize carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency.