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Have we reached the limits of data centre efficiency?

Thu 12 Aug 2021

As cloud services become more integrated into businesses across industries and across the globe, demand for data centre services will continue to skyrocket.

According to Statista, global spending on data centres has doubled in the past five years, and demand is expected to continue to grow.

And as the global data centre market grows, data centre owners and operators will sharpen their focus on improving efficiency. Efficient hardware and data centre design help to improve capacity so that more processes can be managed without expensive additional construction. Efficient power usage helps data centre owners and operators control costs and limit environmental impact. And better processes and workflows bolster employee productivity, increasing overall data centre service levels.

Technological advancement, design innovation, and R&D efforts have all focused on improving efficiencies in the data centre. But as this concern with improving efficiency continues – in capacity, power usage, hardware design, and workflows – it can be difficult to discern how much room remains for continued improvements. Can further gains be realized, or have we reached the limits of data centre efficiency?


Energy usage in the data centre has been relatively flat since 2015, holding at about 1% of total global energy usage. Even in the face of strong increases in demand for data centre services – up 300% from 2015-2018 – energy usage has remained stable. This has been credited to improvements in hardware efficiency and the construction and use of hyperscale data centres.

However, there are still a number of strategies that can be employed to further improve energy efficiency in the data centre. These include:

Optimizing Power Usage

Power Usage Effectiveness gives insight into a data centres’ power efficiency, and reaching a PUE target for the data centre is an admirable and strategic goal. However, even a data centre that reaches its PUE goal can take further actions, including:

  • Optimizing workloads and eliminating duplication of effort
  • Consolidating virtual machines to eliminate wasted space
  • Virtualizing more workloads
  • Upgrading to new equipment where possible, repurposing used equipment when available

Eliminating ‘zombie’ servers is another avenue that existing data centres can take to improve power efficiency in the data centre. A recent study estimates that 5-10% of data centre servers are unused but still active – commonly referred to as ‘zombie’, ‘ghost’, or ‘comatose’ servers. By managing workloads and continually optimizing server loads, a company can continue to improve energy efficiency in the data centre.

Innovative Cooling Solutions

Data centres are reliant on systems to keep servers at an operational temperature – particularly when equipment is packed close together to maximize capacity without constructing additional space. Many advancements have been made to improve cooling efficiency, including:

Physical location:

The location of a new data centre build is chosen based on a number of factors, but one that can have an enormous impact on data centre efficiency is supporting innovative cooling solutions. Perhaps the data centre is located in a part of the world with naturally lower temperatures, such as the Nordic countries in Europe versus, for example, Italy?

Data centre providers have looked to alternate locations to promote efficient cooling as well, including underwater data centres in China, or underground data centres in Israel or Norway.

Liquid Immersion Cooling

Many companies have invested in research toward liquid immersion cooling. Microsoft recently began using two-phase liquid immersion cooling at a data centre in Quincy, WA – submerging servers in a non-conductive fluid bath that eliminates the danger of servers overheating while utilizing less power than standard AC systems.

Liquid immersion cooling is growing in acceptance – theoretically – but has yet to gain traction in the data centre cooling market. When it is purchased, it is often deployed alongside or in addition to air cooling systems, rather than being the main (or sole) method of cooling data centre equipment.

Labour Efficiency

Another component to consider in data centre efficiency is that of labour efficiency. Technological advancements not only support more efficient technology operations – they can be deployed to ensure that processes and workflows are efficient and that workers are productive and efficient as well.

A more efficient workforce can help data centre owners and operators overcome a number of challenges, including a shortage of skilled labour, increased demand for higher-level services, support for cybersecurity initiatives, and more. Helping workers improve productivity also means that data centres can right-size their workforce, automating repetitive processes and eliminating wasted resources.

Tools to improve data centre labour efficiency include:

  • Remote monitoring and management tools
  • Predictive analytics for bundling maintenance tasks
  • Online workforce training
  • Process analytics and workflow streamlining
  • Automation solutions

Many gains have been made in recent years supporting improved efficiency in the data centre. However, today’s industry is still a long way from reaching an efficiency threshold. With continued investment in energy-efficient solutions, and attention to improving capacity, productivity, and innovation, data centres can continue to improve efficiency far beyond where we are today.


cooling energy efficiency optimisation power usage
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