The New IT Competitive Edge: Sustainability

Companies have tried to build these energy-intensive facilities in inexpensive regions of the United States, drawing from the cheapest power sources in the area. Unfortunately, the cheapest sources of energy today tend to be carbon-emitting fossil fuels, writes Rob McKernan of Schneider Electric. He explains how smart companies focusing on sustainability to support both financial and public relations goals.

Rob McKernan is Senior Vice President, Americas Region of Schneider Electric’s IT Business; a role in which he ensures the North and South America regions remain focused on customers and partners.

Rob-McKernan-smROB McKERNAN
Schneider Electric

Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon continually engage in intense battles for market share. And factors fueling these most visible battles include branding, customer acquisition, new products and the like, though these are just the tip of the iceberg.

A less visible but arguably more intensive battle is enabling tech supremacy – how these companies gain and maintain a competitive advantage in the data center. Increasingly, these larger data centers are needed for the horsepower required by big data, and the intensive processing created by today’s connected world. According to IDC (International Data Corporation), the volume of digital content is expected to grow to 2.7 zettabytes (ZB), up 48 percent from 2011. However, these companies face a true dilemma: How will they sustainably and continually power ever-larger data centers, without cutting into budgets for more strategic activities, and in the face of increased public scrutiny?

An example of the increased scrutiny around data center energy consumption were the Greenpeace protests against Amazon and Microsoft earlier this year, drawing attention towards carbon-emitting facilities. Built to accommodate the processing needs for the plethora of music, photos, social networks, maps, and other connected applications that now pervade nearly every single aspect of our daily tasks, these new data centers support a tremendously expansive virtual cloud with just as expansive energy needs. And despite attempts to operate these centers quietly, there is much room for improvement.

Companies have tried to build these energy-intensive facilities in inexpensive regions of the United States (such as Apple’s facility in Maiden, North Carolina), drawing from the cheapest power sources in the area. Unfortunately, the cheapest sources of energy today tend to be carbon-emitting fossil fuels. The resulting “dirty” cloud has led not only to uproars from environmentalists, but also to mainstream consumer demands that tech companies clean up their act.

At the heart of this issue is a disruption in the data center energy market. In the past, data centers did not need much energy, and the energy they did use (such as coal) was cheap, plentiful, and widely accepted and embraced. Our world’s explosion of technology, compounded with uncertainties around our energy future and deep concerns about our already changing climate, have changed this scenario drastically.

This means the IT industry must adapt. Although companies such as Apple have pledged to transition to 100 percent of their power supplies coming from renewable sources over the next few years, there’s the challenge that we do not yet have the infrastructure or the development of a readily-available, cost-effective renewable energy source.

While this goal is certainly commendable, it must be done intelligently – with considerations to both energy supply and demand - to avoid negative bottom line impact, supply crises, and/or costs absorbed by consumers. And it’s important to keep in mind that there are a myriad of technology companies and cloud service providers that do not have the resources to build on-site solar arrays or engineer complex geothermal systems.

Aside from the need to meet societal demand, sustainability’s benefit is more than just an ability to comply with environmental pressures. Sustainable practices bring tremendous advantages to a business by improving operations, slashing consumption costs, increasing employee satisfaction, and adding value to a company’s end product.

Comprehensive sustainability is available today, and able to securely power us into the future – whether or not reliable, affordable renewable energy ever comes to fruition. Sustainability service providers can assist data centers with a wide range of sustainability solutions including strategic planning, technology, and implementation. A thorough sustainability plan will not only allow data centers to operate more efficiently, it also allows companies to successfully meet any set internal or external sustainability goals. While a successful sustainability practice can greatly improve a company’s operations and help uncover hidden economic savings, to effectively counter costs, we need to address the energy supply and demand dilemmas which have emerged from volatile energy costs, uncertainty around our energy security, and an exponentially rising demand for energy from our booming and technology-dependent population.

Successful sustainability requires a consideration of all sides of the energy equation: from the intelligent procurement of clean and affordable energy to the installation of energy efficient and reliable technologies that enable every watt sourced into data centers to be used to their fullest potential. We’ll explore a few different strategies on both sides of this equation, as well as the connecting collaboration pulling total sustainability together:

Supply Side

Especially in deregulated power markets, determining the provider that offers the most sustainable and competitively-priced energy is a challenging endeavor. In addition to sometimes untrue sustainability claims from local generators and utilities, data centers are faced with continual volatility in energy prices.

Depending on availability and consumer demand, the most cost-effective energy supply option can change at any minute – especially with renewable sources. For example, a drought and subsequent low water levels can drive prices up for a utility sourcing a good chunk of its energy from hydro power – while a flash flood in the same area can send rates falling at lightning speed.

Simply put – it’s no longer enough for companies to issue a request for a proposal, and then choose what may appear to be the best price. By taking a more calculated and strategic approach to energy procurement, data centers can reduce their exposure to price volatility and secure energy that meets both budgets and business objectives. While the significant time and resources required for this approach hasn’t always been feasible, it is getting easier.

Demand Side

Even if a data center decides to source 100 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources, blind consumption of energy is no longer acceptable -- not for the environment, society or for a business’ bottom line. This makes energy efficiency critical, no matter which way you look at it. Just by installing simple, energy-efficient technologies, data centers can reduce their consumption by 30 percent.

It’s well known that cooling is the singular largest consumer of energy in a data center. Servers need to be maintained at low temperatures at all times in order to prevent melt-downs, crashes and emergency shut-downs. While traditionally performed by energy-intensive HVAC systems, new options are available to cool racks using outside air – a resource that is free, simple and uses almost no energy. When built in regions with naturally occurring chilly air (such as Google’s recently launched 11-acre data center in Dublin, Ireland), free cooling is one of the most effective demand-side strategies to slash consumption.

And regardless of how data centers choose to cool their servers, many data centers still routinely mix hot and cold air – limiting the capacity and effectiveness of the system. This is easily remedied -- and returns up to 25 percent in energy savings -- just by placing air tiles in the cold aisle; locating supply vents in the cold aisle and return vents in the hot aisle; and other simple, low-cost methods to separate hot and cold air.

Demand Response

Approaching both aspects of energy supply and demand is vital to true sustainability, but the connecting elements to unlock the potential behind this strategy lie in smart management and communication. Demand response, the “killer app” of the smart grid, is the ability of energy companies and businesses to communicate and determine when to best produce and consume electricity.

The business benefits of capitalizing on this communication as enabled by smart supply and demand are enormous. Not only does demand response have the potential to reduce our carbon emissions by 50 percent over the next twenty years, but it also allows enterprises to actually participate in the power financial market – selling back unused energy to utilities at peak times and opening up an entirely new streams of revenue.

There are numerous ways that data centers can easily take advantage of demand response. For instance, advancements in weather prediction have made highly precise environmental data available to IT managers at a low cost, allowing them to work with their utilities to pre-heat and pre-cool their data centers to avoid energy-intense times and costs.

It’s already clear today that sustainability in the data center is not an “if” for businesses, but a “when” and “how.” Considering all sides of the energy equation will prove critical to supporting our sustainability, energy security and growing technology demands. And while sustainability provides businesses a tremendous financial benefit, it will also bring positive public sentiment to businesses that are responsibly sourcing and using energy– whether you’re a small start-up or the provider of the world’s largest search engine.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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