Computing or energy: the duality of data centers

Global data hunger is driving the growth of data centers but also their energy consumption and environmental impact. The industry realizes that change is needed.

When data centers make the news, it is often because one has either been hit by a breakdown or because they are portrayed in an environmental and energy debate as energy-guzzling, water-polluting and emission-unfriendly concrete bunkers. And honestly, there’s little to argue with that. Data centers, meanwhile, already consume more than 3% of all energy produced worldwide. Next year that would already be 4%, and long-term forecasts promise only further increases. “And that’s a consequence of all of us, of our ever-increasing use of more and more data,” says Marc Garner, senior vice president of the Secure Power Division Europe at data center specialist Schneider-Electric.

We met with Schneider Electric in Conselve, Italy: not coincidentally the group’s ‘Cooling Hub’ where innovation around cooling is at the forefront but also where, for example, the ‘chillers’ are manufactured. “By 2025, the total electrical footprint of data centers is expected to increase by another 50%. Also by then, we expect 500% growth in the global data that will be generated. And by 2040 the ip traffic will grow by a factor of 140 as a result, because obviously all that data has to be transported in, to and from the data center. So it’s really not abnormal that data centers will be increasingly addressed in the energy debate,” Garner says. In any case, he says, we are facing seven years of strong, exponential growth. “By 2030, energy needs for everything around cloud and edge will increase by four times, while in the same period internet usage will increase by five times,” he cites some more numerical arguments.

Garner outlines a certain duality. As the data center industry continues to grow, its economic importance grows with it. By 2030, cloud services will be worth €7 billion in Europe. That will include an estimated 75,000 additional jobs. But the impact on energy consumption and water use – cooling systems, for example – grows along with it. “Something has to be done, and we are working very hard on that as an industry. But it goes further for me. I see common ground for data centers in all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. Our challenge is to make progress in all kinds of areas,” Garner believes. “We are moving forward – the Climate Neutral Data Center Pact and the ambition to have a climate neutral data center market by 2030, for example – but more needs to be done.”

‘Electricity 4.0’ is the term Schneider Electric likes to put forward. The company sees this term as the future of the energy sector, as the convergence of electric and digital at scale – making the electricity system greener and smarter. “But at the same time, we definitely need to work on ‘demand,'” said Garner, who does not see an energy shortage per se. “There’s no energy shortage, there’s just too much energy being wasted. To me, it’s simple: wasting less energy reduces energy consumption, expenses and emissions. We have an opportunity to reach ‘net zero’ but above all, let’s hope that the current weaker economic conditions will not cause a slowdown in the sustainability turnaround,” Garner concludes.

Sustainable cooling

One of the elements invariably looked at to control energy consumption in data centers is cooling. “And cooling is indeed a key focus, but not the only one to improve sustainability,” stressed Andrew Bradner, the general manager of the Cooling Business within Schneider Electric. Bradner does see the recent rise of artificial intelligence, especially generative AI, as an additional accelerator and incentive to accelerate work on innovative cooling solutions. “Make no mistake, without AI, data needs would grow just as strongly. But many typical AI workloads require additional power and higher-performance processors. Currently, AI workloads are still only 8% of all workloads in data centers. By 2028, though, this will already be 15-20%,” Bradner believes.

That makes more and more service providers have to move to hyperscale data centers, with the trend, according to Bradner, being to standardize more. “So that we can also do ‘liquid cooling,’ for example,” it sounds. But hasn’t that long been something that has been portrayed to us as a miracle solution? “Liquid cooling has been the ‘next big thing’ for 15 years,” laughs Bradner, referring to gaming and to overclocking, for example. “But the reason it’s being talked about a lot more again now is that it’s the most efficient cooling for a lot of type loads. More intensive processes simply cannot be cooled purely by air anymore. So it’s certainly not new, but it’s becoming real now.”

“Remember that new processors have been generating slightly more temperature each time since 2008. At Schneider Electric, we take an end-to-end approach, assuming that we will use combinations of air and liquid cooling in the coming years anyway. Liquid cooling, by the way, also requires an agnostic approach. The lack of standardization in design to deal with this transition doesn’t help either. For example, there are no standards on how to test liquid cooling and check its performance. In liquid cooling, you quickly find yourself in something that feels like the wild west,” Bradner concludes.

Data centers as ‘backbone’ of sustainability

Maurizio Frizierro, director of Cooling Innovation & Strategy at Schneider Electric, even sees an opportunity for data centers to become a kind of backbone for a sustainable future – linked to the 12 SDGs. “Cooling also really impacts all the SDGs. Minimizing energy via optimized working temperature is a logical first that we have been doing for a long time via ever-improving chillers, for example. Every extra degree has a direct impact of 3 to 4 percent on energy costs,” Frizierro said. “But data centers also have an impact on greenhouse gases. Choosing other cooling fluids, for example.”

So from when does liquid cooling really become a necessity, we ask Frizierro? “That depends entirely on where you are as a data center in terms of kilowatts per rack. A lot of data centers are still working with 7, 10 or 15 kilowatts per rack. You can apply liquid cooling to that to achieve more efficiency. For example, the water temperature can then remain high and you don’t need expensive compressors. But for some, air cooling will certainly suffice or even be more efficient. The story becomes different when you reach a density of 50 kilowatts per rack. Technically you can still use air cooling, but your efficiency becomes a disaster. If you go to even higher density, then liquid cooling becomes a necessity,” Frizierro said.

Source: DataNews

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