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The call for sustainable data centers goes mainstream

3 December 2020
Sunday Times article highlights how digital services do not come without environmental impacts.
The call for sustainable data centers goes mainstream

Last weekend, the UK quality Sunday newspaper, The Sunday Times, ran a full-page article titled “Silicon Valley’s dirty data secret.” Although much of the data quoted will be very familiar to many, it nevertheless forcefully reiterated the point that we’ve been making for several years – digital services do not come without environmental impacts. Every time you browse the internet, stream a television series, use social media or log in to your internet bank, a process starts in a data center. If that data center is a power hungry, coal fired one you are contributing to climate change – most likely unknowingly.

There is however some good news. As businesses become more aware of the carbon-footprint of their data centers, many are taking steps to improve their sustainability. As mentioned in the article, the Hyperscalers are investing millions if not billions of dollars to reduce and ultimately remove carbon emissions from their data center operations. We know from our work with them just how seriously they take this issue. Indeed, it is a significant factor for many in choosing to locate in the Nordics where 100% renewable energy is not only plentiful but cheap. Plus, the region has the added benefit of being cool. Although not always as cold as the bottom of the North Sea, our data centers benefit from the ‘free cooling’ enabled by our climate thus massively reducing the power consumed.

The same, modern, highly efficient data center facilities that house these hyperscalers can also offer colocation for other organizations’ servers. By moving their data centers to our facilities they can quickly reduce the environmental impact of their own IT. Unfortunately, this does still seem to be a blind spot with many. As suggested by Dr Bashroush of the Uptime Institute in the Sunday Times article – it’s hard to know the full impact of data centers as so many do not report efficiency or sustainability figures. Our recent Data Center Trends research reveals that over three-quarters of businesses in the region have clear sustainability targets as an organisation, but only about four in ten have environmental goals for their IT functions.

As the Sunday Times suggests, consumer activism is playing an important role in driving businesses of all sizes and across all sectors to be more transparent about the true environmental cost of their activities – including the provision of digital services. Once again, our own research provides more data here. When we asked consumers in Norway, Sweden and Denmark about clearer labelling of the environmental impact of digital services, 66% said they’d like to see this. In the US, a similar DigiPlex survey found two-thirds willing to consider a streaming service with a lower carbon footprint if given a choice. It is inevitable that both consumers and regulators will demand more transparency to allow individuals and businesses to make informed choices about the environmental impact of services they use. Those businesses that can clearly and precisely point to verifiable figures on the sustainability of their data centers will be better placed to thrive in this environment.

Sustainability reporting is slowly gaining momentum across the industry. DigiPlex published its first report in 2016 and recently released its figures for 2019 and targets for 2020 and beyond. It is one of the few in the industry to issue detailed and consistent reports. Even among those who do report there is significant variance in what is reported and how it is calculated. Increasingly there are standardized and accepted measures for sustainability. These include PUE which measures the ratio of energy used by a data center’s servers versus that consumed by ‘overhead’ services including cooling. The industry average remains stuck at 1.67 whilst our newest data centers operate at 1.25 or less. WUE is another efficiency measure – looking at how another increasingly pressured resource, water, is managed. The average is 1.8 litres per KWh, DigiPlex as proud to report a WUE of 0.5 litres/KWh. The use of standardised and auditable metrics that are transparent and easy to understand will become more important. We predict that consumer pressure as well as regulatory action will make these metrics commonplace in the coming years.

Articles like the Sunday Times one are good for the industry. Although some claims about the impact of data centers on the environment are overblown, we must accept that there is an issue and start to act faster to address it.  It is no longer acceptable, or wise, to pretend that the issue will go away, or complain that people are throwing rocks when we are doing the best we can. As the designers, builders and operators of the foundations of the digital economy we must put sustainability at the top of the list of considerations.

Digitalisation is driving huge growth in demand for data storage and computing resource, and data centers are uniquely placed to deliver this, but this growth must be managed in a way that does not see them consuming huge proportions of the world’s energy resources. Efficiency is crucial, sustainability is vital. It is our role to ensure that the huge promise of digitalisation is delivered whilst also not only protecting but enhancing the health of the environment.

Article written by Fredrik Jansson, CSMO

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