The transportation sector's carbon footprint has overshadowed the environmental impact of the built environment recently – here's looking at you, Tesla. However, the tide may be turning as the telecom industry increasingly focuses on going green, particularly when it comes to data center sustainability.
Specifically, hyperscalers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft are leading the way in renewable energy projects to support their data center operations. More on that later.
The state of data center sustainability
In a warming world, the good news is that data center energy consumption has remained relatively flat over the past few years, hovering at around 1% to 1.5%, and "almost flat compared to the global energy consumption," says Moises Levy, Ph.D., a senior principal analyst at Omdia. He leads data center power and cooling research and is part of the group's cloud and data center research practice.
However, with more organizations reliant on cloud applications and services, data centers are tasked with balancing workload demand with energy efficiency.
"This fear of runaway data center growth is not a new fear," says Lucas Beran, principal analyst at Dell'Oro Group, who notes that the US Department of Energy released a study in the early 2000s warning about the potential environmental impact of data centers if they did not become more efficient.
"Data centers are one of the most energy-intensive building types, consuming 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building," according to the Department of Energy.
Liquid cooling, more efficient IT equipment, smart and connected equipment, and green building standards are some of the ways data centers are becoming more environmentally friendly, according to Levy.
Liquid cooling is particularly important in the sustainability discussion because thermal management can consume nearly 40% of a data center's energy use, Beran says. Free cooling is also an option in colder climates – what Nordic countries lack in natural resources, they're making up for in tapping renewable energy and lower temperatures to support sustainable data centers.
Levy points to intelligent monitoring and "AI-enabled analytics" as additional ways to reduce data centers' carbon footprint.
Telecom's move to software and the emphasis on virtualization and containerization of data centers have largely absorbed potential energy growth, according to Beran, who analyzes data center physical infrastructure for Dell'Oro.
Data centers making a change
Data center companies are also looking for ways to safely reduce their cooling temperatures and rely more on renewable energy sources to deliver on their sustainability goals. For example, last December, data center infrastructure company Equinix committed to increasing the operating temperature ranges within over 240 of its data centers, which it said would improve its energy efficiency by 10%.
"Given the volatility in the energy marketplace today, any actions we take to improve energy efficiency in the data center should help with our customers’ cost efficiencies," Equinix tells Light Reading.
Equinix plans to run the data centers at 27°C (80°F) versus the historical operating temperature range at around 23°C (73°F). Currently, several facilities operate closer to 25°C (77°F) without issue, according to the company.
In addition, Startup ECL emerged from stealth mode last month with $7 million in seed funding to support what it claims will be the first hydrogen-powered, off-grid data center.