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Data centres aren’t using as much energy as we thought

Written by Mon 2 Mar 2020

A new study says improvements in data centre efficiency have not been fully appreciated

Researchers have criticised what they call the “conventional wisdom” that data centre energy utilisation is spiralling out of control, claiming such narratives ignore the great gains made in data centre efficiency.

Revised global data centre energy use estimates were published last week in the journal Science by researchers seeking to clarify the environmental impact of the server farms that underpin the cloud and much of our digital world.

According to some estimates, data centres account for 1 percent of global electricity demand. And with unprecedented digitisation spurring rising demand for data centre services, many have sounded the alarm that the energy used by data centres could spiral out of control.

Previous research has claimed that the energy used by the world’s data centres has doubled over the past decade and estimated that usage will triple or even quadruple by 2030.

But writing in Science, researchers and energy experts slammed previous analyses for being too “simplistic” and suggested global data centre energy use is growing more modestly than is conventionally thought, thanks to “strong countervailing energy efficiency trends” that have accompanied rising demand for data centre services.

The study found that while global data centre compute demand rose by 550 percent between 2010 and 2018, energy use increased by just 6 percent, due to increases in network, storage and server efficiency.

Increased server efficiencies and server virtualisation has enabled a sixfold increase in compute instances with only a 25 percent increase in global server use. While increased storage-drive efficiencies and densities has enabled a 25-fold increase in storage capacity with only a threefold increase in global storage energy use. Finally, shifts to faster and more energy-efficient port technologies have enabled a 10-fold increase in data centre IP traffic with only modest increases in network device energy use.

“The energy intensity of global data centers has decreased by 20% annually since 2010, a notable improvement compared with recent annual efficiency gains in other major demand sectors (e.g., aviation and industry), which are an order of magnitude lower,” the report added.

“In sum, although overall energy use of IT devices (servers, storage, and network) has increased from around 92 TWh in 2010 to around 130 TWh in 2018, technological and operational efficiency gains have enabled substantial growth in services with comparatively much smaller growth in energy use.”

“Given the important role data centers will play in future energy systems, the historical dearth of knowledge on their energy use and the mixed signals given to policy-makers by contradictory findings are unacceptable. Global data center energy use is entering a critical transition phase; to ensure a low-carbon and energy-efficient future, we cannot wait another decade for the next reliable bottom-up estimates.”


Written by Mon 2 Mar 2020


climate change energy energy efficiency environment sustainability
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