John Booth says data centre sustainability requires a rethink
Fri 18 Feb 2022 | John Booth
John Booth, MD of Carbon 3IT and chair of DCA Energy Efficiency SIG, is one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Data Centre World show at ExCeL on 2-3 March. Recently, he shared his perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of achieving real sustainability in the data centre.
Data centre sustainability is a growing concern for owners, regulators, and the communities in which data centre facilities are located. There are as many different ways to approach sustainability as there are interested parties: you can look at it from a carbon emissions standpoint, or power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating, or from the use of renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. While each of these approaches has value, they only address a part of the problem. To achieve real, long-term sustainability, it is more important to move away from ‘20th-century thinking’ and give the data centre a fresh start with a 21st-century point of view. There are a whole lot of traditional things that we still do which, actually, are unnecessary.
What are some examples of 20th-century thinking?
Data centre construction
In the data centre, there is a common idea that we need to focus on building new facilities to add more capacity, rather than improving hte efficiency of existing operations to accommodate higher demand. The average data centre costs $5 million USD per MW. Imagine if those funds were instead put toward improving process efficiencies, or perhaps rethinking the colocation business model to allow for more efficient batch processing and peak- versus off-peak prioritization.
Data centre design
If you overlay the design of an automobile from the 1970’s on a modern car, you would see drastic, fundamental changes to the design. From safety improvements, to streamlining, to functioning and efficiency – drastic, easily recognizable changes have been made across the entire vehicle. The same exercise between two data centre designs would show very few changes. The same basic layout is reused, with some adjustments, but no revolutionary thinking applied.
For example, data centres today take their design cues from existing facilities. But in doing so, they miss the opportunity for deep changes that could create real, long-term impact. For example, the commonly accepted operating temperature is 18-21 degrees C: but today’s servers remain operational up to 35 degrees C. While there are considerations as far as altitude, humidity, and compound temperature effects can affect these numbers, there is a much wider range of operational temperatures than what the industry is accustomed to.
Investments are continually made to improve the physical security of the servers inside the data centre. But how necessary are the onion layers of physical security – the biometric, AI-enabled access controls – against the real threats to data security? When an estimated 90% of data breaches are the result of a remote cyber-attack rather than a physical threat, perhaps data centre security should be less concentrated on physical security and access control.
“The risk profile, and the methodologies for ascertaining risk and dealing with risk are seriously flawed. And so many of our data centre assumptions flow from how businesses view their risk profile.”
Many enterprises in the data centre industry are devoting resources toward securing renewable energy to power data centre services. For example, in 2021 CyrusOne announced that all European data centres are 100% powered by renewable energy.
On the positive side, these businesses are actually putting their hands in their pockets and spending money on building renewable energy platforms, and that’s good! But my mantra is: an inefficient data centre powered by renewable energy is still an inefficient data centre.
One of the areas of opportunity in data centre sustainability is in immersion cooling. Recently, a French bank announced they are moving to a liquid immersion cooling solution for their data centres. While there is an initial expense for setting up the new system, energy consumption in the data centre goes down immediately, waste heat can be used to heat office space, and long-term costs are reduced.
This is an example of the type of thinking that can be truly beneficial in supporting long-term sustainability for the data centre. The businesses that begin to truly innovate – re-imagining everything from their construction and design, to equipment and power, to business models that promote efficiency – will have an edge in ensuring their businesses are prepared for a sustainable future.