With the amount of energy now required to power the world's data centres, the consumption policies and strategies surrounding them are becoming rather critical to organisations hoping to achieve sustainability and remain competitive.
A report released last week by 451 Research reveals how the renewable-powered data centre is becoming more commonplace, demonstrating major strides towards the use of green data centres and the challenges still to overcome.
The report, Energizing renewable-powered datacenters, notes that global power demand for data centres grew to an estimated 40 gigawatts in 2013, an increase of seven per cent over 2012. This figure is expected to rise year-on-year, along with greenhouse gas emissions from data centres.
The Smarter 2020 report puts IT-related carbon emissions at about two per cent of total global emissions, and data centres will be the fastest-growing part of the global IT sector energy footprint, with demands increasing 81 per cent by 2020.
Rodney Gedda, analyst with Telsyte, tells CIO that data centres, like cars, probably can never be 100 per cent 'green', but we can certainly reduce their environmental impact dramatically.
"That translates through to everything from the construction and design of the data centre to the environmental management needs inside a data centre," Gedda says.
Leading the way
The average data centre is only expected to derive a small percentage of its required energy from renewable sources. Yet, today we see a handful of large players finally starting to skew that trend, with the likes of Apple and Google seeing financial, sustainability and availability benefits from increasing the proportion of energy they use from renewables.
The 451 Research report shows a number of operators have adopted data centre designs that rely on, and even make a virtue of, on-site renewable or low-carbon generation.
In the first quarter of this year, Apple claimed it was investing $US1.9 billion in two new European data centres that will be 100 per cent powered by renewables (grid and on-site).
In the same period, Apple also announced an $US848m solar investment in California, while Google announced a significant wind turbine project in the same state. These actions, along with many others, could be the start of green data centres becoming the standard, rather than the exception.
Colocation provider Equinix has also deployed green technologies in its data centres, including adaptive control systems, cold/hot aisle containment, energy efficient lighting systems and variable frequency drives, with the aim of achieving 100 per cent green and renewable energy-powered, worldwide.
The company's operational practices have resulted in reducing energy usage by 13,500 kilowatts annually - enough to power more than 11,000 US homes for a year.
David Rinard, senior director, global sustainability and procurement at Equinix's global design and construction department, says the success of green computing strategies depends on commitment, foresight and a willingness to try new technologies.
"We have been designing and operating energy-efficient data centres since our 1998 founding, while employing numerous leading-edge techniques," he says.
"Our job is to make Internet data as globally available as possible, but we are equally obligated to make it as green as possible."
The 451 report notes, however, that as large Internet operators continue to grow, it is not clear whether their investments in renewable energy capacity will be able to keep pace.
Some companies are seeking other environmentally friendly means of cooling data centres, with Facebook relying on a fresh air system and evaporative cooling to maintain humidity and heat removal in its data centres, instead of running air conditioners around the clock.
Others may relocate data centres to cooler climates to help reduce energy needed to power cooling infrastructure, or opt to let the servers run hot.
Many infrastructure managers today have resigned themselves to running servers hotter than is recommended, after realising the impact on the equipment is not as harsh as previously thought.
"The failure rate of equipment might not be much higher if you have a few degrees of increased temperature in the data centre," Gedda says.
"There's a school of thought that you should keep the data centre as cool as possible, but if the failure rate only increases marginally with a hotter environment but the energy savings were quite dramatic, then you've gained some environmental impact.
Such actions serve not only to reduce carbon footprint but also as an affordable means of doing so, without having to make too much further investment.
"Carbon emission avoidance is less of a priority and is usually driven by marketing, or a corporate social responsibility agenda," says Andrew Donoghue, European research manager for 451 Research and author of the report.
Compulsion has also played a role in data centre renewable investments, due to pressure from regulators, environmental groups and customers to reduce carbon emissions and energy wastage.
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Energy efficiency is a necessary pre-condition for the effective use of renewable energy, however, and could be viewed as a stepping stone toward not only more energy, but also more carbon efficient facilities, adds Donoghue.
"Saving energy and eliminating [inefficient] equipment may have immediate and long-term financial benefits in addition to carbon reduction," he says.
Financial pros and cons
Despite many being driven by reputation or altruism, the report finds the vast majority of data centres continue to be more focused on the financial benefits of general energy efficiency measures.
Predictable energy costs, mitigation of climate change regulations, and tax breaks all contribute to the case for investment in renewable generation, says Donoghue.
Larger operators have maintained that cost reduction has been a critical driver for investment in renewables, with Apple expecting to save hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs from its solar investments, ranging from lowered energy costs, significant government subsidies, and other ancillary benefits.
However, the price of grid and on-site renewables compared with fossil fuels remains an obstacle for many organisations in the short term.
"The main challenges are capital intensive - a lot of green initiatives get pushed back because they require an upfront investment," says Gedda.
"In the case of solar panels, it might be an investment of up to a few million dollars and does the owner of the property or data centre operator want to invest that amount of capital for a long-term return?"
In addition, many operators require support from industry or government that is lacking, while financial mechanisms such as renewable energy certificates (RECs) remain complex and open to criticism around their true environmental value, says Donoghue.
Flexibility and security
The flexibility of alternative power sources can allow for greater power security and back-up capabilities.
"With traditional infrastructure you've got electricity networks and substations, which only extend so far," says Gedda.
"Even when looking at the recent storms and power outages in New South Wales and Queensland - when the traditional electricity grid is still exposed it's not infallible.
"Many data centres might have had to resort to diesel-generated backups and battery stores, when that type of infrastructure can be supplemented by renewable energy as well."
Gedda suggests alternatives could be to run back-up power using sustainable bio-diesel, instead of traditional mineral diesel, while charging battery packs with renewable sources like wind or solar.
"Those sorts of things are certainly worth investigating if you have data centres in different locations, each with different requirements and risks."
On the flip side, the report finds the intermittent nature of renewables is a significant issue for an industry predicated on reliability.
"Unless very large investments are made, wind turbines and solar photovoltaics do not generally provide the power density required for data centres," says Donoghue.
"Even large expanses of solar panels, for example, may only provide a few hundred kilowatts -- insufficient for larger data centres that consume megawatts of power."
If it ain't broke...
Another challenge, according to Gedda, is those infrastructure managers or company heads that are reluctant to move or change their data centre without an immediate need to do so.
The refresh cycles of data centre equipment - or lack thereof - are also causing delays, as organisations tend to want to get the most value they can out of equipment rather than upgrading to new more sustainable methods.
"That means running a server for longer than it was designed for and not upgrading it so it's more efficient... there's a cycle of lack of investment there," says Gedda.
"It's hard to change an industry that's very mature and with such a social and economic impact. "Individuals and companies are reluctant to change rapidly, but as more green options come to the table I think green data centres will become more of a standard than an exception."
The 451 report predicts that, overall, only a relatively small number of data centres will actively invest in on-site renewables (or co-locate with alternative energy providers), while others will begin to alter existing power infrastructure in response to wider changes in the grid.
It's expected that data centres will become more energy-aware and seek to interact with and understand their energy supplier better, leading to a greater variety of different power architectures and different energy purchasing relationships.
The report also predicts that data centres will increasingly be considered in the context of interaction with local energy infrastructure, micro- and mini-grids, as well as other intelligent buildings given growing investment in so-called smart cities.
"As capital costs for greener infrastructures come down, we're also likely to see more innovative options for powering and cooling, as well as how buildings are designed with sustainability in mind," says Gedda.
"The best option for those looking to be greener is having a data centre designed to be green from the ground up.
"If you can't have that scenario, then you might look at using pre-existing environmentally friendly buildings that offer more options for renewable power, better cooling and design and so forth."
Private sector developments are expected to provide progress in this area, along with global schemes such as the EU-backed RenewIT project, which aims to develop advanced energy simulation tools for integration of renewable energy sources in data centres.
"It could be decades before the green data centre becomes standard ... but once we get over those humps, we can expect a tide of change," says Gedda.
"Data centres aren't going to become green overnight, but we're getting there."