Monday, 23 May 2022

Can we really achieve Net Zero in our data centres?

Today’s organisations hold vast quantities of digital information. However, data centres are contributing to an increasing proportion of the world’s carbon footprint.

Today’s organisations hold vast quantities of digital information. The ease and low price-point of modern cloud storage solutions makes it far too easy to accept that situation – but we must recognise that it doesn’t come without a cost.

Most businesses could defensibly delete much of the data they hold. Yet the promise of future insights – and uncertainty over which data has value – combined with the low costs and ease of cloud storage is helping to fire an explosion in the amount of data we hold.

However, the growing number of datacentres around the world should concern us. Our growing data demands have a price. Data centres are contributing to an increasing proportion of the world’s carbon footprint. Analysts expect data centres to account for 2.13% of total global energy consumption by 2030.

#1. Reduce

The first step of any environmental plan is to reduce.

The promise of data is the transformational insights that it might deliver – and that makes many of us hold on to more data than we really need or know what to do with.

Even a business known for its intrusive sale and misuse of personal data seems to be lost in this tsunami of data. Last month, a leaked internal document(1) revealed that Facebook has no idea where all of its user data goes, or what it’s doing with it.

Many companies could slash the amount of data they hold – if they had an effective, strategic data strategy.

#2. The solar-powered data centre

A large number of tech companies are investing in solar as a source of low-carbon power for their facilities. Google(2) recently installed a “dragonscale” roof of solar tiles at its Bay View Campus. If successful, the company plans to roll out the technology worldwide, including in its data centres. This follows Google’s investment, in 2020, into a $600 million solar plant for its data centre in Henderson, Nevada.

#3. Natural cooling

While desert locations might be ideal for solar power, there has also been huge investment in datacentres in Scandinavia. This is because the climate of northern Europe lends itself well to natural cooling solutions – important for circulating out the hot air generated by the servers. Facebook(3) opened a naturally cooled data centre in Northern Sweden as long ago as 2013. Freezing air from outside is pumped into the building. At the time, the Luleå warehouse was the most energy-efficient computing facility ever built.

#4. Geo-thermal power

In Iceland, virtually all the country’s electricity is generated from geothermal and hydroelectric power. This vast resource of carbon-neutral energy has attracted many data centre operators(4) to the island state. The fact that the country also benefits from natural cooling thanks to the brisk sub-artic air is another plus. The rapid growth of the data centre industry in Iceland is leading to further investment in the submarine cables to provide data connections to the rest of the world.

#5. Recycling heat generated by servers

Meanwhile, the City of Stockholm’s Stockholm Data Parks(5) initiative will use heat recovery to channel the excess heat generated by its data centres back into a heatsink that will then be distributed to the city’s municipal heating system. The initiative leverages Stockholm’s district heating and cooling energy system, which connects more than 10,000 buildings representing a “heat sink” of 12TWh.

#6. Localised under-water data centres

Microsoft’s latest idea is for underwater data centres(6). At the end of last year, the tech giant raised a proof-of-concept submarine data centre from waters off the coast of Scotland after a two-year trial. The concept was put forward in a 2014 ThinkWeek event as a potential way to provide lightning-quick cloud services to coastal populations and save energy. The consistently low-temperature sub-surface seas allow for energy-efficient data centre designs.

In the Scottish trial, a water-tight steel tube encased 864 servers and the related cooling infrastructure. It was filled with dry nitrogen to minimise corrosion. The local grid there is entirely supplied by renewable energy so the company could ensure the lowest possible carbon footprint. As a result of the trial, Microsoft is now looking at the feasibility of collocating underwater data centres with offshore windfarms.

The best way to reduce the carbon footprint of your data

While organisations using cloud resources can’t have a direct impact on the way the data centres they use are operated, you can introduce green standards into your purchasing processes.

It’s also worth remembering, as we explored in an earlier blog, that hosting your data in the cloud is likely to be a lot greener than any data storage you can operate on premises, so simply moving to the cloud will help to reduce your carbon footprint.

The huge data centres run by the big cloud providers are extremely efficient operations, with high-tech cooling solutions and modern equipment that are simply more energy efficient than your aging server room. Furthermore, cloud architectures and native cloud applications can be designed to use much less compute resources than traditional on-premises solutions. Accenture has estimated that reductions in carbon output can be as high as 98% for some use cases when designing applications specifically for the cloud.

However, as we stated at the top of the blog, the best way to reduce your impact is simply to reduce the amount of data you hold – and this will depend on you having an effective data strategy, so you know exactly which data has value, which must be held for compliance reasons and which you can defensibly delete.

What now?

If any of these topics has piqued your interest, why not reach out to the Grant McGregor team? We are always happy to offer advice and talk through your ambitions.

You can reach us on: 0808 164 4142


Further reading:

If you’d like to read more about green issues, you might find the following blogs interesting:

Did you know moving to the cloud could lower your carbon footprint?

How to build a greener business through technology

What role must technology play in our transition to a Net Zero carbon world?