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5 Steps to Make Your Data Center More Sustainable

Is it possible to operate a green data center? Determining how to achieve such a lofty goal presents challenges to even the most ecologically minded data center directors. 

Data centers churn through massive amounts of energy to support the millions of users who rely on them. In 2020, data centers accounted for one percent of all electricity usage in the world. Since then, it has climbed to between two and three percent. Future projections show that data centers, operating as they are now, will be responsible for eight percent of global energy usage by 2030. 

Cutting corners to reduce data center energy consumption could spell disaster for users and businesses needing smooth, stable connections, high-level computing, and data storage. And the number of those users grows every day. Each year since 2010, internet traffic has increased about 30 percent. That trend seems to be accelerating—perhaps as a result of more people working remotely than ever—with 2020 seeing a 40 percent increase in internet traffic and data transmission.

There are several logistic and financial obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of data center energy efficiency. It can be difficult, for example, to get clean, renewable energy from rural areas into the high-density cities in which most data centers are located. Additionally, most of a data center’s carbon footprint comes from its cooling systems, infrastructure, and hardware rather than from an operational practice that could be fine-tuned within the organization. Until these problems are solved, total energy efficiency for data centers remains elusive. 

Despite those challenges, data center sustainability is a goal that consumers, investors, governments, and ecological groups are pushing for. The more awareness around sustainability grows, the more data centers feel the pressure to adopt greener practices. 

Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have all begun adopting and marketing new green strategies, with other major players following suit. In fact, Apple already operates some data centers that are 100 percent sustainable. That sustainability should last several years before they need to make changes. Seagate similarly aims to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce their carbon emissions to a neutral level by 2040. 

Digital Twins May Play a Part in Data Centers Going Green

Some data centers have built digital twins of their current facilities to model how different courses of action could affect factors such as energy usage, the amount of water needed to cool hardware, and the building’s carbon emissions. 

Digital twins are increasingly playing a role in the entire data center development process, including planning out the construction of new buildings, the renovation of existing buildings, and the overall management practices of an already-operational facility. 

By putting data into the digital model, operators can adjust different financial, engineering, ecological, and performance factors to find an optimal and efficient balance. A data center operator could, for example, plot out a more efficient path for cabling and cooling throughout the facility that could save on energy costs over time. Once the digital twin reflects the data center’s goals, operators can take the same actions in the real world to achieve the same balance. 

However, digital twins aren’t always economically feasible for every organization, and you may not be in a position to build one just for the sake of making some tweaks to your operations. If you’re already well down the “green” path, a digital twin can certainly help you complete the journey. 

But what if your data center still has a long way to go before the end goal comes into focus? If you’re starting to consider sustainability a priority for your data center, the following steps may help. These changes are apt to make a large, immediate difference to your data center’s environmental impact. 

Turn Your Data Center Green In 5 Steps

1. Reduce Energy Waste

All efficiently-minded data centers have something in common: they avoid spending energy on resources they don’t need. For example, using virtualization software, cloud and hyperscale data centers need fewer servers running at once. This means that they can use virtual systems to run multiple operating systems and applications with less of an energy load than data centers running the same processes on multiple physical servers. 

Striving for scalability also helps to reduce energy waste. If you’re able to effectively manage which resources are necessary and use management software—which we’ll cover later—to shut down idle resources, extraneous energy usage is significantly reduced. 

2. Source Local, Renewable Energy

You may be able to source the best renewable energy provider possible, but if they’re located several states away, it’s going to be difficult for you to access that energy in a practical and cost-effective way. Using local, renewable energy means you face less of a logistical obstacle when it comes to routing the power to your data center.

A couple of examples of this principle in action are Microsoft and Google. Microsoft and Google have both partnered with local, renewable energy sources to set up a load-matching system that produces enough energy to power their data centers on an hourly basis. 

Depending on your location, your options for load-matched renewable energy will vary. Solar and wind farms are more efficient in some areas than others, for example, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to achieve local energy matching. 

You might want to speak with multiple local energy providers to get a feel for what the cost and reliability will look like before signing a contract. With some savvy shopping, you may be able to offset much of your power usage with locally produced green energy. 

3. Use Software to Optimize Efficiency

You’re probably already using data center infrastructure management (DCIM) software and a building management system (BMS). But you may not currently be using these software solutions to hone your operational energy efficiency. These applications can identify areas of energy waste and overall inefficiency, and can be configured to scale resources up or down to maximize efficiency. 

When you find room for improvement, you should document those instances within the software and return to them later when you’re ready to make changes. That way, you won’t forget to tweak a setting or make an upgrade. You should also document when you have changed something, so you’re able to measure exactly how that change resulted in different energy usage. Some efforts will be more worthwhile than others, so tracking your changes with management software helps take the guesswork out of energy optimization. 

4. Adopt Green Construction and Renovation Practices

Building and manufacturing codes don’t typically place emphasis on issues such as emissions. This makes it difficult for data center operators to know exactly what to do when they want to make sure each new building is up to a certain green standard. 

One option is to follow green building codes such as Green Globes, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). These voluntary codes help operators who want to build or renovate green data centers achieve certain standards.

Green Globes has a focus on project management. LEED covers maintenance and operations. Depending on your goals, you may want to learn more about one or both of these before beginning your next construction or renovation project. You may also wish to have your current building evaluated based on the criteria in these codes so you can identify areas that need to be improved to reach an acceptable threshold. 

5. Find Green Energy Suppliers

Although you might hope to source all of your energy from local suppliers, achieving this in practice may be difficult. This is especially true if your building is not located near a solar or wind farm. 

But you do have other options. The Clean Energy Buyers Association (CEBA) connects businesses with clean energy suppliers who share a goal of reaching 90 percent carbon-free electricity by the year 2030. They also focus on improving the logistic and financial aspects of getting clean energy to the data centers that want to use it. 

Perhaps, by the year 2030 when data centers might consume close to a double-digit percentage of the world’s energy per year, enough bright and determined minds will be focused on solving these problems that new, clearer paths forward will emerge. Until then, you can take any or all of the above steps to help you get closer to operating a more energy-efficient data center.

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