Data centres and the environment: A bifocal lens
Thu 27 Feb 2020 | Jonas Caino
Are date centres contributors to climate change or symptoms of industrialisation? Both, says Jonas Caino
Those in the data centre industry today know that we are living in exciting times. Just 5-10 years ago, we were using buzz words like Internet of Things, machine learning, 5G, hyperscale, cloud computing, edge computing, etc.
These things are now very real and are forming the catalyst of the data centre boom we are currently experiencing. The world has caught on to the use of technology in virtually every aspect of our lives from teacherless classrooms using extended reality (XR) to autonomous driving; from the fully automated and connected home to advances in medical technological applications.
The list of the reasons to use the haloed binary code in the world we live in will continue to grow unabated far into the future and data centres big or small will continue to support this growth. Truly exciting times! However, our excitement needs to be tempered with caution.
Terms such as ‘saving the planet’, ‘going green’, ‘environmental sustainability, and ‘tackling climate change’ are not new. As far back as 1824 French physicist, Joseph Fourier, first described the Earth’s natural ‘greenhouse effect’. From the days of the 1972 UN Environmental Conference in Stockholm, it’s been one whitepaper, policy, summit, scientific analysis after another. Since the 90s, awareness and the accompanying climate change protests seem to have accelerated and for good reason.
Study after study highlights the point that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change since the 1950s. This makes sense when one key factor is the global industrialisation of nations. Industrialisation is unlikely to slow down as all countries still view it as a form of competitive national advantage and governments, particularly in the recently industrialised countries, are unlikely to back down. So, the likes of Greta Thunberg are turning up the heat and the next few years will certainly be interesting.
How the data centre fits into all of this can be viewed through two lenses. The first is through the lens of the data centre as a perpetrator of climate change. A contributor as it were. The figures out there clearly demonstrate a causal link between data centres and carbon emissions, mainly through the power-hungry nature of these facilities.
Reports state the world’s data centres in 2016 accounted for 2 percent of the carbon emissions forecasting to rise to 3.2 percent (matching the aviation industry) by 2025 and a whopping 14 percent by 2040. Although we can always find statistics to debunk statistics it does show that the data centre’s contribution to climate change is only increasing. How can we reduce if not reverse the impact data centres have on our climate?
The second is through the lens of the data centre as a victim of climate change. Whichever way we look at it, the world needs to store and retrieve the ever-growing amounts of data required to maintain our way of life. In other words, data centres are fast becoming objects of strategic importance to the world.
These ‘warehouses of data’ and their corresponding networks must keep functioning even if everything else is falling apart. The impact of climate change has already started to show through events like the recent bush fires in Australia and the vast floods in the United Kingdom. With fears of rising temperatures and sea levels, how can we protect what may now be our most valuable resource?
So, it seems data centre managers have to view climate change with a bifocal lens. What can be done to make data centres more efficient using creative techniques and methodologies around cooling, electrical infrastructure, white space management etc? Also, what can be done to protect our global assets whatever the challenge may be through better site selection, self-healing clusters, Al-augmented facilities and so on.
As an industry, we have been tackling these challenges and we will continue to tackle them as long as we remember that the industry includes ALL stakeholders bar none.