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How sustainability AI can overcome the data centre sector’s growth challenges

Written by Fri 29 Sep 2023

In this feature, Venessa Moffat investigates how sustainability-focused AI solutions can help solve the pressing growth challenges faced by the data centre industry.

As crucial infrastructures powering our digital lives, data centres are at a crossroads; balancing skyrocketing demand with the imperative to adhere to stringent sustainability benchmarks.

Venessa Moffat examines the role of AI-driven technologies in navigating this complex landscape, offering insights into the future of sustainable and efficient data centre operations.

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From the application of AI to the growth of mobile commerce, the birth of the metaverse to burgeoning Internet of Things, the way we run our lives and businesses today is set to drive a data explosion and sustained demand for data centres.

Analysis by real estate advisors Savills, suggests that the number of data centres in Europe alone will need to increase 2.5 times to 3,000 by 2025 to meet future demand. This is in addition to the smaller but significant on-premise facilities required by industrial, finance, media, and telecoms businesses to name just a few data-hungry sectors.

As the data economy grows, the nature of demand will also change: blockchain, hyperscale cloud, AI, and high performance computing all come with their own specific requirements for delivering higher performance while managing demand.

This means the high growth will continue and data centres will have to support higher and higher density racks. For example, one data centre giant has launched a high-density colocation service in 28 markets, which will support workloads of up to 70kw per rack.

Sustainable Growth

As the sector scales up to meet this demand over the coming years, the extent to which it can do so sustainably will represent a major constraint on growth.

Data centres already contribute a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, which is currently estimated at 2% globally.

International commitments to the Paris Agreement demand a halt in the growth in these emissions by 2025 and then a reduction of 25% by 2030.

At the same time, new sustainability reporting standards such as the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires exacting transparency and measurement of environmental impact and resource use.

In recent years, the sector can point to concrete action and innovation in meeting sustainability challenges through location choice, facility design, and efforts to better manage cooling.

Now, as the scope for further optimisation of buildings has got to the point of minimal gains – as evidenced by the marginal decrease in PUE in recent years – the sector must look elsewhere to achieve the operational efficiency which will deliver the sustainability improvements required in the new operating environment.

Performance Management

This will require a focus on managing IT equipment and facilities in a more nuanced way, leaving PUE behind as a measurement and looking in greater detail at performance.

This is precisely what is envisaged by CSRD, which requires reporting on nine areas of resource use and equipment of IT equipment.

Of these, two metrics will both be key to future gains in efficiency and sustainability: IT Equipment Energy Efficiency for servers (ITEEsv) and IT Equipment Utilisation for servers (ITEUsv).

A critical future task for any operator will therefore be the ability to measure and improve these key metrics from the IT stack. Relying on the simple crude metric of PUE will not be enough.

How AI can help the Data Centre Sector

Learning how to optimise data centres for effiency and sustainability rather than just performance is not a straightforward task.

Interrogating vast amounts data to predict, test and measure performance in different use cases scenario is beyond the current capability of data centre operators.

This is down to a combination of factors: the sheer amount of working hours required to interrogate performance data, and the currently siloed working arrangements for IT and facility teams. The lack of tools to assist with this task have also been a factor; until now.

In the same way that AI and machine learning has been deployed successfully to monitor and improve performance and security of the hyperscale cloud providers, AI tools will be key to unpicking the future performance/sustainability challenge for the data centre sector.

With the growth that is predicted, it will become harder to manage higher volumes of higher density compute, which will mean companies will not be able to keep up using manual processes.

Centralised systems will need to be integrated and secured in order to facilitate this, but once achieved, the power of AI will help them in a number of areas, such as:

  • Safety and security: For automated threat detection by identifying anomalies, and to secure all endpoints from cyber and physical threats.
  • Power management and distribution/uptime: New energy setups will enable software-defined power systems to take advantage of following the moon pricing, and match actual workloads.
  • Predictive analytics: Already in play in some data centres, AI will help companies predict equipment failures, and also prolong the life of the equipment
  • Thermal management: A walk around the site is no longer the way to manage hot spots and optimise cooling. AI-enabled systems are available to manage this autonomously; saving on energy and keeping the sites within ASHRAE recommendations.
  • Energy reduction from IT stack: With the increase in regulation, specifically in Europe, companies will have to report on IT energy efficiency and IT energy usage, and show improvements over time. It is now possible to baseline these two things across an entire estate, and optimise the estate using AI algorithms, thereby reducing energy consumption.
  • Modelling and optimisation of all equipment: This is like digital twin for buildings and HVAC. It is possible to plan the power and cooling distributions systems and model them within a piece of software. ‘What if’ scenarios show how a change in one piece of equipment will affect the whole system of systems. Others look at performance of systems, and can help companies model the most efficient setup from an energy perspective.

Complexity Unpicked

Seizing the opportunity that AI offers to solve the growth/sustainability challenge facing the data centre sector will require a fundamental shift in the way facilities are managed.

If sustainability and resource efficiency is to be improved, then IT teams and facility teams who work in siloes towards different priorities must align more closely together towards clear shared targets.

This will require the knowledge and capability of a sustainability lead who can identify sustainability outcomes and manage cross-functional teams. They will also need the experience and capability to ensure that measurement is aligned to external reporting frameworks such as CSRD and the business is incorporating wider sustainability targets like those in the Paris Agreement into operational planning.

As a wave of sustainability AI providers emerge for the sector, there is a need for data centre operators to proactively identify and evaluate new technology providers to understand how they can deliver on the sustainability requirements of each business.

For technical solutions to be implemented effectively and at low risk, there also needs to be someone looking after cybersecurity.

If there is one simple message which leadership teams must digest, it is operational sustainability is now the key value driver and differentiator for the sector. To stay ahead and compete, organisations will need to transform and adopt new technologies.

About the Author

Venessa Moffat is the General Manager for Data Centers at QiO Technologies, a sustainability AI business which helps asset-heavy and energy-intensive businesses deliver rapid reductions in GHG emissions and energy costs.

About the Data Centre Alliance

The Data Centre Alliance (DCA) is a not-for-profit UK trade association comprising of leaders and experts from across the data centre sector.

Through The DCA, organisations operating their own data centres and server rooms can access trusted information on the benefits of adopting best practice, learn more about the products and services available to them. This supports them as they strive to drive down operational costs and increase the efficiency of their IT assets in support of their business goals.

The DCA publish over 100 member authored articles a year with a different focus each month. Through the Media Partnership program; the trade associations combined audience of 120,000 subscribers provides an extremely cost effective platform. Insight can be shared by members and knowledge can be gained by customers from a trusted source.

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Written by Fri 29 Sep 2023

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