By Steve Lorimer, Group Technical Director at Keysource
In 2021, 25 operators and 17 associations in the data centre industry pledged to be net zero by 2030, when they signed up to The European Data centre Association’s Climate Neutral Data Center Pact (CNDCP). They committed three-quarters of the energy used by their data centre facilities to be renewable or carbon-free by 2025 and completely carbon-free by 2030. The dichotomy however is that demand for computing power and digital services is growing fast. In the last decade, global internet traffic increased ten-fold and data centre energy use is likely to increase accordingly by 2030. As a result, there is much talk within the market about sustainable solutions and innovative ways to reduce carbon emissions.
Let’s take a step back and look at what sustainability means for a data centre and what the next-generation data centre needs to have for sustainability to be at its core.
Historically a lot of decisions and considerations around data centre facilities have been related to commercial incentives and lower operating costs. It’s only more recently that the focus has shifted to how sustainable the building, its infrastructure and the operation of the facility is and there is now some excellent work being done. However, in my view, it’s going to require an even bigger step forward to hit the net zero target.
Performance-related M&E Infrastructure improvements will continue to be relevant but ultimately these will be further enabled and driven by the performance and technologies implemented at the IT layer – after all, the ability to deliver the workload in the most sustainable manner is the ultimate goal.
This can only be done by ensuring that resource utilisation measurements are aligned against the relevant IT performance statistics to drive a relevant KPI/metric for the given organisation’s use case. Historically the focus has been on carbon reduction achieved both through energy optimisation, and plant upgrades including the implementation of newer technologies. As our energy sources decarbonise, considering the whole-life carbon of the services will become more critical, as embodied carbon becomes a more dominant factor.
This is somewhat at odds with the cyclical nature of both IT lifespan and the supporting M&E infrastructure so ensuring that facilities are designed and implemented with this in mind is critical. Using existing best practice considerations including right sizing, modular implementation and appropriate implementation of resilience will continue to form the bedrock; reducing embodied carbon while optimising performance. However, having the ability to accommodate new and future IT technology requirements (such as direct liquid cooling), without wholesale plant replacement, and while still maximising energy performance, will be critical to keeping equipment relevant and therefore maximising lifespan.
Reap the benefits
Professional data centre operators will be challenged from numerous angles moving forward to demonstrate their carbon reduction credentials. That will include: planning and permitting new facilities or upgrades; meeting reporting and disclosures which it will now in some cases be under a legal mandate to provide; or just addressing internal operational improvement obligations. Increasingly operators will need to regularly reciprocate more data with their clients to meet each of their obligations. From raw materials to water and energy use, the whole supply chain across the facility lifecycle will need to become more mature in both its consideration of resources and the availability of relevant data.
This increased pressure from both up and down the supply chain, along with pressure from investors, may mean data centres that can achieve the 2030 target on time or earlier while integrating seamlessly with customers and the supply chain, will come out on top. Not only will they reduce their impact on climate change but also their operating costs through increased operating efficiencies, while maximising the value of existing capacity, and helping to comply with regulations and initiatives.
The data centre sector has made some huge changes during a complex and challenging time and we should all feel proud of the progress that has been made. However, to become truly sustainable there are still many things that must change and practices that must end. There is no doubt that it is only through a wholesale approach that our sector can reach net zero. We cannot afford to stand still.