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Colorful lights in a data center. Cultura Creative RF / Alamy

Industry Pro Explores Renewable Developments and the Future of Data Center Sustainability

Mark Monroe shares his answers to AFCOM's "Five Data Points" interview series.

Editor’s Note: Data center member organization AFCOM interviewed Mark Monroe, principal engineer in Microsoft’s Datacenter Advanced Development group, on the data center industry and its impact on the world. Mark is a member of AFCOM’s Data Center Institute and he’s a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with a focus on change acceleration in corporate settings. He has led industry consortiums including Infrastructure Masons and The Green Grid, and has served on the board of directors for the Center for ReSource Conservation in Boulder, CO.

Mark Monroe, principal engineer, Datacenter Advanced Development, Microsoft

Mark Monroe, principal engineer, Datacenter Advanced Development, Microsoft

AFCOM: This past year, what has been the greatest challenge you’ve had to face within the data center industry? How have you overcome it?

Mark Monroe: Over the last year, demand for digital infrastructure services has been a huge challenge for us. There’s still a significant demand all around the world in this space and overcoming the logistics issues that were particularly acute at the beginning of 2022 has been one of the biggest hurdles.

Everyone’s been working through particular items that either aren’t available, or will be available after an extremely long lead time, while trying to meet capacity requirements that our customers demand for data center space and digital infrastructure services. Just trying to keep up with that on the back-end side, with transformer manufacturers and generators and electrical equipment and everything else that goes into a standard data center, has probably been our biggest challenge the past year—with no immediate relief in sight. It’s not like we can build new factories or supply chains at the drop of a hat, so we’re just having to wait for now.

AFCOM: How do your data centers interact or give back to their local environments or communities? How do you hope to give back in the future?

Monroe: Microsoft has a whole community relations organization within our data center group, and some of the things I know that we do is trying to engage the community before and after we build a new data center. We want to give back to the community in terms of education, charitable giving, and everything else that we’re able to do within the particular region.

We’re also obviously looking at local talent, and we know that talent might need to be developed over time. That’s why we focus on the university and other levels of schooling to get people interested in digital infrastructure careers early, and we also make sure to provide scholarships and other financial aids to get people interested in studying and pursuing these careers.

We’re also working with government agencies on resource usage and management, especially where we have big power and water demands. Microsoft plans to be carbon-negative by 2030, not only on an annual basis but also weekly, or even hourly. We’re also inspiring and working as anchor tenants on new renewable projects to make sure they have the financial backing and support they need, because we want to make sure there’s a long-standing source of renewable energy available wherever we work.

Finally, we’ve made commitments to being water-positive wherever we are. Water is such a local resource, and we know we use tons of it during the cooling seasons for our data centers. As such, we’re working very hard to make sure we’re contributing back to those local water sources and ensure we’re meeting that water-positive commitment by 2030.

AFCOM: If you could build a data center anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

Monroe: Well, it’d be as close to our customers as we could, and with unlimited power and resources and a huge pool of human talent, etc. [Laughs.] I mean, we are building data centers all around the world. Microsoft has over 200 data centers already in our portfolio, and we have huge capacity demands to build new data centers everywhere.

I think the simplest answer would therefore be, “Everywhere there’s demand for it.” And really, we’d do that so that we could provide better digital resources for customers in those areas—less latency, higher performance, more local data storage for regulatory requirements, etc. We tend to really try to be driven by the market more than anything else.

AFCOM: What recent data center trends have made you the most excited or enthusiastic?

Monroe: You know, I’m a big proponent of sustainability—have been for the past 10, 15 years in my career—and specifically sustainability of digital infrastructure: the facilities, the IT infrastructure, etc. I think that we’re seeing both a regulatory environment and both a market requirement for ever-increasing the thought and actions within the sustainability space. I’m really happy to be working for Microsoft with our negative-carbon commitment, because it’s not just enough to be sustainable, we also actually have to be productive. It’s important to be able to show actual results, to prove that the digital infrastructure industry can really contribute to those sustainability factors.

We do this through the services that we enable. If you look at logistics services, like some delivery services, the compute resources that we provide can make those services more efficient, like being able to plot the least impactful route possible from a carbon consumption standpoint. They also can dematerialize the need for some things. If you look at the past 10, 15 years in the music and movies industries, you can see a similar dematerialization happening, which reduces the need for transport and travel and other costly factors.

The metaverse is also going to be very interesting from a similar standpoint. There’s a lot of apocalyptic fear about the metaverse, and there’s been plenty of stories about how it can go wrong, but it can also provide a bunch of amazing things, like virtual tourism. Of course, you want tourism to continue to be real, and want people to visit the actual locations, but in case of overcrowding or other factors, this could be a very effective alternate solution. People who aren’t able to afford travel could experience a great deal of the world in the immersive environment of the metaverse.

AFCOM: What do you personally hope to accomplish in the next decade? What do you hope the data center industry as a whole is able to accomplish in the next decade?

Monroe: Personally, I’m hoping to continue with some of the R&D projects at Microsoft that are real game changers in terms of the number of resources that the facilities or IT equipment use. These are projects that will influence the whole industry. I’m lucky enough to be a big influencer in a company like Microsoft, which prides itself on innovation. We’re looking at things like getting rid of diesel generators, reducing our water usage, increasing automation, increasing our cooling effectiveness—all of those technological and operational challenges are really exciting to me.

In terms of the industry as a whole…you know, I’m really looking forward to some of the work that we and others are doing where data centers finally get back to a “Please In My Backyard” status. Ten years ago, locations fought for data centers, asked them to provide jobs in high-tech industries, and it was really popular to get a data center in the late 2000s. And yet, somehow, we’ve gone from there to crowds of pitchforks and torches saying, “No data centers in my backyard!” [Laughs.] I’m exaggerating but we’re not nearly the desirable industry that we were ten years ago. We really need to think of ourselves as a “resource provider,” and not just a “resource consumer,” even though that’s difficult to do in practice—we do consume a lot of resources.

But maybe there are ways we can strengthen the grids, inspire new renewable developments, and make it so that there are fewer outages local to data centers. We can also encourage critical support services to be close to us, because we have generation resources, we might be able to spare. Perhaps we can share resources with local communities that want to encourage the development of pollution-free, emission-free, fuel-based economies. Those are the kind of things that the digital industry can inspire and act as a catalyst for the rest of the world.

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