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

Sustainability in Today's Data Center

Sustainability is achievable and desirable for the data center industry, writes Ron Vokoun, of Gray Construction.

Industry Perspectives

April 26, 2012

5 Min Read
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is Mission Critical Market Leader, Western Region, at JE Dunn Construction. Ron was previously Director of Mission Critical for Gray Construction and also served in leadership roles with Qwest Communications and Aerie Networks. You can find him on Twitter at @RonVokoun.

Ron Vokoun, Gray


JE Dunn

Data centers are one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy, and correspondingly, one of the fastest growing users of energy. Cloud computing and virtualization are driving densities higher, while data centers are growing larger to address rapidly expanding demand. Digital leaders such as Facebook, Google, and Apple are helping create a more sustainable future for the Internet and the growing sector of government, companies and people whose data resides in the cloud.

By adding the presence of renewable energy to their data center site selection criteria, Facebook has laid down a marker that others in the industry will now have to follow. Apple and Google have taken it a step further by investing heavily in renewable energy projects. That’s the good news. However, there are many ways in which those of us not in the big leagues can incorporate green techniques. As a U.S. Green Buildings Council (USGBC) LEED Accredited Professional and data center specialist, I help customers weigh the tradeoffs in sustainability implementation that require careful consideration. This column discusses some of the major areas in which sustainability is being incorporated into the data center.

LEED vs. Energy Star

A common question is whether to strive to achieve an Energy Star rating or LEED Certification. Having worked on several LEED Certified buildings, I have tremendous respect for the application of items like low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) and recycled materials, and human comfort factors. That said, there are certain facets of the LEED program that work against data center efficiency such as day-lighting requirements.

At the same time as the USGBC is taking the step of adding LEED Certification for Data Centers, the EPA has added Energy Star for Data Centers making it easier to gain recognition for implementing sustainable practices in the data center environment. The decision of which to pursue is a difficult one, but LEED Certification appears to have the upper hand at this time. I believe this is due to the wider recognition of LEED, but Energy Star is gaining ground as it is focused on areas that will have a positive financial impact on data center operations. It is certainly possible to achieve both, gaining even wider recognition for your efforts.

Renewable Energy

When selecting a site, considering the availability of renewable energy, as Facebook has agreed to do, can lead to a greener profile. Although the grid doesn't know the difference between renewable and coal fired electrons, different geographic areas are certainly known for their production of renewable energy. An alternative is to site your data center in an area where you can install your own renewable energy whether it be solar, wind, or geothermal.

One recent example is WindData's plans to build a data center in Pflugerville, TX which is to be supported by the wind farms of West Texas. Another is Apple’s proposed solar farm at their Maiden, NC data center. An alternative, that would not affect the site selection, would be to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) or carbon offsets. RECs effectively convey the attributes and benefits of the renewable energy to the buyer.

Energy Efficiency

One could argue that sustainability in the data center, and elsewhere, begins and ends with energy efficiency. Areas to examine here are cooling – whether free or other sources – and tweaking the thermostat. The potential for free cooling should be considered if you can be flexible in selecting the geographic location of your data center. Implementing an evaporative cooling strategy is energy efficient, but increases water usage, which can be a factor depending on your location. Raising the thermostat is the single easiest way to save energy. ASHRAE has updated recommended and allowable temperature ranges to facilitate this savings.

Financial Evaluation

Different locations offer varying incentives for the implementation of renewable energy and energy efficiency. One way of taking all of these items into account from a financial standpoint is to perform a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) analysis. The price of power, water, land, equipment, operating costs, taxes and incentives are all brought together in this analysis to provide a holistic view of the data center.


The branding value of sustainability cannot be ignored as most major companies now have some form of green initiative. If your data center has no sustainable considerations, it may prevent potential customers from taking space in your data center. At the end of the day, all of these factors must be weighed against the financial impacts they will have on your business.

Ignore at Your Own Risk

I'll spare you the triple bottom line (financial, social, and environmental responsibility) lectures. and simply say that, if implemented correctly, sustainability is not a cost, but an operational efficiency that will positively affect the bottom line of your data center. But, there is not a single solution for every situation. Careful analysis and implementation is necessary to optimize your green data center. In closing, if you ignore sustainability, you are doing so at the peril of your business because it has implications far beyond the LEED or Energy Star plaque that will adorn your facility.

Editor's Note: This column is a first in a series where the author will expand on each of the issues involved in achieving sustainability in the data center.

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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