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Finding the perfect balance between sustainability and performance

Finding the perfect balance between sustainability and performance

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Andy Connor, Channel Director, EMEA, Subzero Engineering, discusses the need for data centre leaders to become more aware of the environmental consequences of their digital footprint and how best to monitor it as demand for sustainable operations places more pressure upon the industry.

In 2020, the Uptime Institute’s, Andy Lawrence stated: ‘The average power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratio for a data centre is 1.58, only marginally better than seven years ago’.

This revelation may come as a welcome shock and while it might be overstating the situation to characterise data centre energy usage as the Internet’s ‘dirty secret’, there’s little doubt that the reality of the sector’s carbon impact has been masked by the many headlines which focus solely on its sustainability successes.

Colt Data Centre Services, for example, recently announced that its operations across Europe are now fully powered by 100% renewable energy, while many members of the US hyperscale community are publicly revealing their latest renewable energy projects and initiatives. Carbon offsetting is another idea quickly embraced by end-users, vendors and operators of all shapes and sizes, and while all of these activities, in part, contribute to data centre sustainability improvements, they do not directly address the issue of data centre power consumption.

Data centre power usage

Today there are many estimates as to the amount of power that data centres across the globe consume on an annual basis. Energy Innovation estimates that, in 2018, data centres likely consumed 205 terrawatt-hours (TWh), which equates to 1% of total global electricity. However, the authors of a paper published in ‘Global Energy Interconnection’ in June 2020 state that ‘data centres will become the world’s largest users of energy consumption, with the ratio rising from 3% in 2017 to 4.5% in 2025’.

The data differs again in the January 2020 Uptime Institute Journal, which reports EU data centre energy consumption figures of 130 TWh in 2017, alongside Greenpeace’s 2018 Chinese data centre figure of 160 TWh, which makes for a combined total of 290 TWh for China and Europe alone.

The fact is that as data centre capacity increases, so will energy usage. And while we may not agree on the exact numbers, few would argue about the direction of travel. So what can we do to change the trajectory and how can we begin to pinpoint consistency within sustainable strategies?

A change in demand

Demands for Digital Transformation are a key factor behind data centre energy consumption, but rather than overload you with a tsunami of data, I would urge you to take a short time out to consider just how essential Information Technology has become to almost every factor of everyday life.

Take a typical work day, how do you communicate with colleagues? What does your role entail? Then think about your plans for the weekend (lockdown not withstanding) – have you thought about the films you’ll watch, the apps you might use, or your personal connection to a data centre?

Now try and imagine a future that also includes Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), what impacts will this digital consumption have on the data centre industry, and what does it mean for sustainability?

Those are big questions, many of which people outside the sector won’t have considered, but the answer may lie within a recent data centre industry initiative to show us the way forward. Recently, 25 companies and 17 associations across Europe joined together to sign the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, with the objective of making data centres climate-neutral by 2030.

There’s clearly a growing momentum behind sustainability, but the industry needs to move beyond the environmental easy wins of the past few years and start to address the factors that really address efficiency and PUE ratings – those which have hardly changed in seven years.

There’s also the question of whether PUE truly is enough to measure our carbon impact. So with this in mind, where can we begin?

Beginning with the data

Back in 2005, Subzero Engineering started life as a Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) consultancy. At the time, a large percentage of the industry was using raised floors and experiencing issues with leakages. Yet, with a simple to use and accurate software solution, we were able to show customers how they could analyse their data centre infrastructure and take steps to both improve efficiency and reduce their environmental impact.

Fast-forward 16 years and that approach has stayed with us. Today, we’re an engineering-led solutions provider that helps world-leading businesses achieve a lower carbon footprint, greater efficiency, reduced operating costs and exceptional performance – and it all starts with the data.

For example, by showing customers the hot and cold air influences within their data centre and helping them to analyse, optimise and retrofit their facilities, we believe we can help them find the perfect balance between sustainability and performance.

The proof is in the outcomes and today, we keep a live record of the annual energy savings we’ve achieved for our customers. To-date they include:

  • Total savings: US$332 million
  • Total kW savings: 356kW
  • Total kWh savings: 3BN kWh
  • H2O savings (gallons): 1.5 billion
  • CO2 reductions (tons): +3 million

However, while these data points show some of the gains that can be made by focusing on sustainability, two questions remain; how do organisations become more energy conscious and what are the next steps they can take to become more sustainable?

Defining next steps

At Subzero Engineering, we believe that beginning with a data-driven CFD report is the first step, and offers data centre operators insight into how to drive efficiencies across all areas of their facility. This is not limited to airflow; it includes the Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), Computer Room Air Conditioners (CRAC), racks, IT and cooling fan speeds.

A CFD analysis also shows them how they can achieve a higher rack density, more computing power and help increase the operating temperature to gain both a higher performing and more streamlined and efficient data centre.

This information is invaluable, offering both a starting point and a medium for creating a strategy that balances performance and efficiency. It also offers a means of truly understanding what kind of Return On Investment (ROI) they can expect from improving sustainability, especially in terms of reductions in energy and water usage, and lower carbon emissions.

Looking forward

Today, energy efficiency and sustainability objectives have become key drivers for owners and operators. Subzero has always been a sustainability-engineering organisation; it just so happens that in recent years, ‘sustainability’ has become a key talking point for the industry.

Coming back to the data, a paper authored by Anders S.G. Andrae once presented three possible scenarios for data centre electricity usage (TWh) by 2030. The best-case figure is 1,137; the expected figure is 2,967; and the worst case is 7,933. As an industry we cannot let the latter become a reality.

In the absence of the grown-up sustainability conversation that needs to happen soon, where more businesses and consumers become fully aware of the environmental consequences of their digital footprint, I believe more and more pressure will force our industry to perform better.

Sustainability, however, begins with data-driven action, and a free CFD analysis is a perfect place to start.

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