Who actually consumes the energy: you or the data center?

Data centers use a lot of energy, but they don’t just do that. The installations meet the demands of people and companies, and do so ever more efficiently. Those who have already implemented green design in their data centers in recent years have an edge toward the future.

“Actually, it’s a shame that you need so many applications and connections,” Lex Coors reflects. He is Chief Data Center Specialist and Engineering Officer at colocation specialist Digital Realty. “It’s a big misconception that data centers consume energy. We all do that together. The whole economy around us is digital.”

Data centers are the engine of that digital economy, just as the steam engine was the driving force behind the industrial revolution. Because we are all demanding so much from servers and connections, the ecological impact of data centers is rising worldwide. That need not be a disaster. We described earlier how large data centers are becoming increasingly efficient, so the impact of growing digitalization on power and water consumption does not scale linearly along with it.

More than a cool topic

Digital Realty has been working on this for some time. “Sustainability used to be a cool theme you could spice up a firm with,” Coors knows. “Now things are getting concrete. Europe is working on regulations. You have to know what’s coming, so you can take that into account.” Among other things, Coors himself sits on the policy committee of EUDCA(European Data Centre Association) and keeps his finger on the pulse of the European Commission and the national sector associations of data center specialists.

“Europe is willing to talk to the industry,” notes Coors. “That’s a big difference from the U.S., where rules are imposed. The EU believes in expertise. If they explain their goals and problems, and we explain the impact of their proposed rules, we can all come to a solution. Moreover, the legislation applies to the whole sector; the playing field is level.” Because of that discussion around ecology with peers and the EU, the data center industry has known what’s coming for some time. Digital Realty has therefore made it a point to build new sites not according to current rules, but taking tomorrow’s goals into account.

Pioneering sector

Coors gives kudos to the entire industry. The EU has a long-term greening strategy, with an ambition to be climate neutral by 2050. “The data center industry can achieve that already by 2030. When it comes to sustainability, our biggest competitors are our biggest partners. We are working together efficiently for greening, with results.”

Looking ahead is one of the most important aspects of a green data center, according to Coors. “True sustainability and green energy became a major theme around 2009,” Coors recalls. “In the beginning, there was a bit of a chuckle about it because it didn’t interest the customer at all. I then raised it with the CEO. On the one hand there was a reputation advantage to be gained, but on the other hand it was gradually becoming clear that the earth has finite resources. That did not fall on deaf ears.”

Building sustainably

Digital Realty did not build its data centers as cheaply as possible, but spent the last decade looking ahead to 2030. The current buildings are therefore in line with the guidelines.

“In 2002, we wanted to cut costs significantly,” Coors adds. “So we dropped off everything that wasn’t needed. That way we were saving tens of thousands of dollars a week. That created a realization: why run systems at all that aren’t needed? Since then, we have always installed what was needed, plus thirty percent to scale quickly. The architecture of the data centers does ensure that we can quickly add capacity without impacting the operational part.”

True green energy

Digital Realty itself has been running entirely on green energy for more than six years. In doing so, Coors immediately points out that the company is aiming for truly green energy, not skirting certificates offsetting emissions or other things where the green color is only added to the energy after the fact.

“The electricity comes either from PPAs(Power Purchase Agreements), where we bought a stake in a solar or wind plant, or from a GO(Guarantee of Origin).” In the latter case, Digital Realty secures green capacity that is reserved, so no one else can reserve electricity at the same green power plant. Both constructions ensure that the power used effectively has a green origin.

Water consumption

Data centers typically consume a lot of water, although that is not the case at Digital Realty. “Our data centers no longer use any additional water,” Coors says proudly. “We fill up once, and we’re set with that. That way, we still have a design that really gets us ready for 2030.”

Use, not abuse is Coors’ mantra. “You can pump water out of the river, cool it with it and sodomize the warm water back into the river. On a five- or 10-year horizon, the impact of such abuse is marginal. But if you then start putting a lot of power at a sea mouth, for years, you create a microclimate and ruin things. There are lakes in the U.S. that stink with heat like that.”

Residual heat

The waste heat created by a data center is a complex issue, according to Coors. “We have been building heat exchangers into our designs since 2010,” he says. “The waste heat is available for free for any future local community projects. The problem is that the heat from the cooling water is too low. The temperature is around 31 degrees, when actually 60 to 70 degrees Celsius is needed.”

That’s where chip specialists can play an important role. The CPU and GPU makers of this world have cool specifications for their chips. “For air cooling, water must be 21 degrees at the input, and comes out at 30 degrees. For water cooling, the input is currently even at 16 degrees. That’s very unfortunate, because for every two extra degrees you can have an extra month of cooling without the need for compressors.” Consequently, right now, water cooling is not the ideal solution from a sustainability standpoint.
Digital Realty, like other data center specialists there, just has to swallow what is offered, which Coors finds regrettable. “Turn it around, go to 40-degree water for cooling, with an output of 60 or 70 degrees and that way you kill two birds with one stone. You need less cooling gases, and the waste heat is more usable for a heat grid.” Currently, chip manufacturers are not immediately eager to adjust the thermal tolerances of their chips because they are closely tied to the performance of their chips. In other words, when it comes to waste heat, there is not an infinite amount a data center can do on its own.

What about diesel?

There are other issues that Coors looks at very soberly. For example, we see hyperscalers experimenting with alternatives to diesel to run emergency generators. “Surely this is mostly about perception,” he thinks. “Such generators run maybe ten hours a year. In the EU, the chance of the power grid going down is really very small, thanks to its architecture. If something goes wrong, it’s generally fixed within two to three hours.”

The switch to hydrogen does not warm Coors’ heart. “By 2030 we want to create 20 million tons of green hydrogen in Europe, and big industry knows how to do that. Before it is our turn and green hydrogen is really available, many years will pass. If we switch to hydrogen and green produced hydrogen is not available, we are polluting with brown hydrogen. In that case, a diesel generator with HVO100 (renewable diesel), which eliminates 97 percent of CO2 emissions anyway, is a better option.”

And what about on-premises?

So there is still room for improvement. In particular, chips running hotter could make the data center even more efficient. In practice, it is not difficult for Digital Realty to get its PUE below 1.2. PUE stands for Power Usage Effectiveness, or how much power a data center has to use extra for cooling, for example, on top of the power that infrastructure uses to simply operate.

The colocation data center: the cornerstone of modern IT architecture

Running IT infrastructure efficiently has become a professional job. Moreover, Europe is going to judge organizations on the sustainability of their IT. Hyperscalers have the scale to go green, and colocation specialists certainly do, as Coors illustrates. The case for on-premises data centers at enterprises themselves, though, becomes more difficult to sustain. Getting the PUE down there, building efficiency into the data center design, handling water and heat properly …, it requires future vision and expertise. The data center sector may be a slob in absolute numbers, but it is one of the more efficient sectors out there.

A little perspective is also in order. Coors already indicated that data centers do not guzzle energy on principle, but to meet our digital requirements. That digitalization brings benefits. Coors: “Regardless, the energy consumption of a video call is a lot lower than that of a car when you drive to a physical appointment.”

Source: https://itdaily.be/blogs/infrastructuur/ecologie-en-datacenters/

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