Insight and analysis on the data center space from industry thought leaders.

Smaller Footprint, Big Impact: Saving Space and Increasing Profits in Data Centers

Efficient data center design is crucial to manage growing demand. Maximizing profit-driving 'white space' while minimizing 'gray space' is key for cost reduction.

3 Min Read
A gray tech background with glowing lines symbolizes 'gray spaces' in data centers.
Olga Salt / Alamy Stock Photo

Data center demand is poised for continued, aggressive growth. In the U.S. alone, McKinsey’s analysis shows that demand is expected to increase from 17 GW in 2022 to 35 GW by 2030. While operators try to keep up with this growing demand through new construction of data centers and efficiency-focused retrofits, it’s crucial for these designs to utilize space more efficiently so they can minimize their physical footprint.

Data centers built for the future need to support the increasing customer demand for more data, faster service, AI, edge computing, IoT, increasing digital content, and hybrid cloud solutions. This will require more equipment, mainly servers, to increase capacity. But the larger the data center’s footprint, the more expensive it is to manage and maintain. This is especially true for the rising numbers of data centers constructed in urban areas, with higher real estate prices and related taxes. The key: Do more with less space.

The more power one can fit into a smaller real estate footprint, the less expensive real estate costs are relative to the revenue generated. For instance, modular data centers can reduce the footprint and cost of containerized electrical rooms by using smaller, more power-dense equipment. Smaller equipment footprints, especially for infrastructure, make more room for servers and for profits.

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White Space vs. Gray Space

Maximizing physical space leads to more efficient operations. In data centers, we categorize space into ‘white space’ and ‘gray space.’ White space includes equipment that increases capacity and thus directly makes a profit, such as servers, storage, and network gear. Gray space refers to back-end support systems that usually do not directly generate profit. Gray space equipment includes supporting mechanical and electrical infrastructure: generators, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, switchgear, chillers, and transformers.

Minimizing gray space with smaller, power-dense equipment allows operators to maximize the profit-driving white space. Replacing older, less efficient infrastructure equipment presents an opportunity for profitable upgrades as newer, more efficient technologies become available. While the initial investment into equipment upgrades may seem high, utilizing efficient equipment will lower long-term costs.

For example, upgrading your UPS battery system is a great place to start. Choosing a UPS battery with a smaller footprint reduces gray space and frees up more white space. Look for a battery cabinet with the smallest linear footprint per watt so you can leverage more power in less space. By choosing batteries with a higher power density, you can reduce the necessary number of battery cabinets and have more room for additional servers -- or even a smaller overall facility. Non-flammable chemistries, such as nickel-zinc, also eliminate the need for additional safety equipment, permitting, and space considerations required by lithium-ion batteries. This can help lower batteries’ footprints even further.

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Smaller, more efficient equipment allows data centers to save energy costs, reduce data centers’ overall carbon footprints, and offer an avenue for their customers to lower their scope 3 emissions to meet regulatory and ESG targets. As the data center industry becomes more competitive, those who offer more affordable, sustainable services through profitable equipment upgrades have a significant advantage in attracting and retaining more customers.

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