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Pathways to a More Sustainable Data Center

The technology reshaping businesses also comes with its own carbon footprint, with the use of energy-intensive data centers requiring a more sustainable approach.

Nathan Eddy

February 1, 2023

5 Min Read
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SABIDA via Alamy Stock

With energy costs rising and the business imperative for sustainability growing, IT leaders and infrastructure & operations (I&O) leaders are looking for ways to make their data center operations more environmentally sustainable, not to mention more cost-efficient.

Pressures are coming from many directions -- from customers, employees, vendors, business partners, and increasingly so, executive management -- as companies start to realize their environmental footprint has a direct impact on their operational costs as well as their reputation.

Consequently, their bottom lines are directly impacted. The impact from aspects such as talent acquisition are starting to play a major role with a company’s ability to gain and keep a competitive advantage, which increasingly hinges on the company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) position.

However, making sweeping changes once equipment and clients are powered up is not an easy task, which means organizations must constantly be looking at the operational efficiency and overall sustainability of their facilities.

Evolutions in Power and Cooling Efficiency

“Data centers that are more efficient and can offer a high kilowattage [kW] per cabinet will be the leaders in the marketplace,” explains Regis Malloy, chief strategy officer for Element Critical. “The IT world has evolved to become denser and power hungry.”

He notes that 20 years ago, an IT cabinet was 42U tall by 24 inches wide by 39-40 inches deep at or around 3 to 5kW.

“We are now seeing vendor and clients deploying cabinets 48U tall by 24-31.5 inches wide by 48 inches deep with power needs exceeding 15 to 24kW,” he says. “With the onset of hyper converged servers, storage, network, security and SD-WAN solutions, the demand for compute power and connectivity has skyrocketed.”

He points out that extreme demand is going to push efficiency as well as innovation in concert with one another.

“However, in some cases power and cooling efficiency will hit its limits for some traditional data center spaces and customers will need to accept a larger, less dense footprint to keep their equipment running at an optimal thermal temperature,” Malloy explains.

An example would be rather than five cabinets at 20kW, deploy in 10 cabinets at 10kW, with the increased footprint allowing for equipment to be mounted lower to the floor and cooler air.

“It also provides an overall larger volume of air flow to be supplied to the equipment limiting hot spots,” he says. “While not as compact, it would be an overall better solution for client and data center equipment longevity.”

Chris Noble, CEO and co-founder of Cirrus Nexus, says for a company to achieve a truly sustainable environment, they need to understand and develop a comprehensive system that incorporates accurate and measurable metrics of their environmental footprint.

“Companies need to be aware that their impact is dependent on many factors including time, location, weather, and other factors that directly impact the sustainability,” he explains.

The choice of the “cleanest” data center changes on a routine basis.

“Knowing which region, time of day, and day of the week to operate workloads is instrumental to achieving true sustainability,” he adds.

Breaking Down Data Center Sustainability

Malloy explains data center sustainability best practices can be broken into several key factors, including facility location, skilled staffing, and facility automation and monitoring.

“When building a data center to suit today's needs and the needs 20 years in the future, the location of the facility is a key aspect,” he says. “Does it have space to expand with customer growth? Areas to remediate and replace systems and components? Is it in an area that has an extreme weather event seasonally? Are there ways to bring more power to the facility with this growth?”

He says these are just a few of the questions that need to be thought of when deploying and maintaining a data center long term.

“Technology may be able to stretch the limits of what’s possible, but sustainability starts with people,” Malloy adds. “Employees that implement and follow data center best practices keep a facility running in peak performance.”

He says implementing simple things such as efficient lighting, following management-oriented processes and support-oriented processes for a proper maintenance and part replacement schedule increase the longevity of the facility equipment and increase customer satisfaction.

“In addition, DCIM and facility monitoring for visibility into the systems and services the data center provides is also critical,” Malloy says. “Knowing how your facility is operating at any point of the day and having a history to review statistics are all crucial elements for a facilities longevity.”

The proactive approach of routine tasks from setting proper power alerts thresholds to using a thermal meter to check power connections for any excessive heat conditions can mean the difference between systems and materials that last versus a surprise maintenance event.

“All this attributes to safety and stability, but also longevity of a facility,” Malloy notes.

Executive Drivers for Change

Noble says from an executive level, the constantly shifting pressures on data centers means agility is required to take advantage of the best possible options on a weekly (or even daily) basis.

“The operations teams need to recognize how a shifting approach to managing workloads will require additional tools and skills,” he says. “Measuring and managing the demand for energy will reduce both costs and environmental impact for a company. Applying a direct cost to sustainability will drive the required behavior.”

He adds that demand for power to operate data centers will be greater than the amount of power generated today, and some regions are already struggling to obtain additional clean, reliable, quality power.

“As the ever-increasing demand for processing power continues, these challenges will continue to grow,” Noble says. “Starting to think about how we value environmental impact will inform the decision-making process.”

As the behavior changes to prefer power that has the greatest impact on sustainability, so will the decision process change with where and how to build future data centers.

“The time it takes to plan and build additional data center regions is a multi-year process,” he notes. “Creating the demand for sustainable data center regions will require meeting the demand now through well planned actions.”

What to Read Next:

Making Data Centers Cool Again

Reining in the Risks of Sustainable Sourcing

New Tools Measure Green IT, Sustainability Success

About the Author(s)

Nathan Eddy

Freelance Writer

Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for InformationWeek. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.

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