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2021: The Year of the Sustainable Data Centre

Sat 2 Jan 2021

As environmental regulations evolve, and businesses demand greener solutions, data centres must build sustainability into their ongoing strategies

Becoming a greener organisation: improving resource efficiency, and working to build a sustainable model for the future, is a critical factor in data centre strategy. Data centres are enormous consumers of resources, and demand for the computing power that data centres provide is growing at an astonishing rate.

Building sustainability into strategies – and budgets – is becoming a fundamental factor in data centre operations, and data centre PR. For data centres, 2021 could prove to be the greenest year ever.

The Problem: Data Centre Resource Usage

Energy Consumption

In 2020, a study published in the Journal of Science found that data centres accounted for 1% of the total energy usage worldwide. Without efforts to improve energy consumption, the continued growth of data centres, both in number of facilities and in volume of data processed, will cause energy consumption by data centres to grow as well.

However, the same study found that while data centre workloads had increased 6x between 2010 and 2020, the collective energy consumption had not increased to the same degree. This was credited to technological advances, that improved the efficiency of data centre processing as well as advances in green initiatives, such as energy conservation, which helped data centres process increasing amounts of data without proportionate increase in energy consumption.

Water Usage

In the US alone, data centres are expected to use 660 billion litres of water per year.  Water is used for two separate purposes in data centres: generating electricity and cooling the facility. Controlling the water usage in a data centre is critical for several reasons: water availability is a critical factor in managing climate change; it is necessary for the development of agriculture and industry; and it is necessary to support a growing population.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Data centres are responsible for approximately 2% of greenhouse gas emissions: nearly the equivalent of the entire global airline industry.

As global concern for climate change increases, and companies are concerned with their own green initiatives, data centres are a growing point of interest for regulatory agencies and B2B consumers alike.

Green Data Centre Initiatives 2021

Many of the largest data centre providers have created plans for environmental initiatives in response.

Reducing data storage

Demand for data storage in 2021 unlikely to slow down.  Every day, people produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, with that number expected to reach 463 exabytes per day by 2025.

In order to manage increasing demand without a proportionate increase in energy consumption, data centres are using a number of techniques, including:

  • data compression
  • deduplication
  • thin provisioning

Advances to data compression are being made daily. For example, a study from the International Journal of Geo-Information recently identified a new type of algorithm called space division based compression (SDC) that is accurate, reliable, and fast.

Colocation and Cloud

When companies transition from maintaining their own, private data centres to outsourcing data centre needs to a third party, either through cloud adoption or colocation strategies, economies of scale become available. A data centre services provider can take advantage of these economies of scale to maximise processing while minimising waste and resource consumption.

Liquid Cooling

Air cooling is highly inefficient consuming a huge amount of resources to keep all the servers and equipment in a data centre functional. Liquid cooling can rapidly reduce the temperature in a data centre, as liquid is a better conductor of temperature than air. In fact, liquid cooling can reduce power consumption for data centre cooling by 20-30%, by some estimates.

Facebook has been using a proprietary liquid cooling system called StatePoint since 2018, which they report may be responsible for reducing cooling costs by 20% in hot climates and up to 90% in colder climates. 

Location and Design

Gains in resource efficiency can be garnered by the way that data centres are designed – so new builds are created with efficiency in mind. Locations for these data centres can have a significant impact on sustainability as well. Three of the largest data centre providers: Google, Facebook, and Amazon, have all purchased land in Sweden with the idea that building in a colder environment will help to keep the costs of cooling down. 

Backups and Resiliency

The majority of data centres utilise diesel generators as backup in the event of a power failure. However, recent advances by companies like Google are pointing to the potential of using lithium-ion batteries for backup power which could “anchor carbon-free electric grids.”

As environmental regulations evolve, and businesses demand greener solutions, data centres must build sustainability into their ongoing strategies. Taking advantage of technological advancements, and prioritising spending that will lead to reducing the environmental impact of operations, will contribute to the success – or failure – of data centres in the future.


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