Despite the fact that the cloud has increased enterprise sustainability, data center facilities around the globe are expected to consume 19 percent more energy in 2012 than in 2011, according to new research from Datacenter Dynamics. This is a bit concerning, considering that 29 percent of data center operators fear that there will not be enough energy to meet the growing demands of today’s high-consumption data centers within the next three years. This is a scary fact, especially because data centers have established themselves as the backbone of our digital world.
In response to this increasing demand for energy, data center operators are gearing up for a green revolution. This revolution consists of more than just using clean fuels, though. Data center operators must build their facilities in an energy-efficient manner and implement technologies that help decrease the amount of energy needed to run a facility. On top of that, industry bodies must set strict standards to help enterprises select the greenest facilities, encouraging green practices for both suppliers and customers. With these changes, data center operators will be able to conserve energy and reduce the environmental and economic cost of data centers around the world.
Working From the Ground Up
Starting at the most basic level, energy-efficient data center design can greatly enhance facilities’ sustainability. Modular design, for instance, enables data center operators to optimize energy use by only building to suit immediate operational needs, and then expanding the space, power and cooling in accordance with demand. This approach drastically increases utilization rates and builds on the basis of immediate need, rather than projected consumption.
A prime example of the effectiveness of modular design is in how data centers plan for growth. Often a new data center is built to meet forecasted space requirements by adding extra square footage and servers before they are needed. But these additional servers must be cooled, lit and powered up without actually being used. This wasted utilization has been estimated to cost $19 billion each year. Modular design, on the other hand, takes a phased approach to data center growth, allowing companies to expand as needed and avoid wasting power or space.
Heating and Cooling Best Practices for the Data Center
On top of initial design elements, many best practices can be implemented to optimize the efficiency and sustainability of a data center facility. One growing practice is recycling a data center’s hot air, which is produced in mass quantities around the clock. Although waste heat from servers cannot be recycled within a data center, it can be redistributed as hot air to the local community to reduce the amount of heat needed by surrounding neighborhoods. Data centers throughout Europe and the U.S. are already implementing clever ways to use waste heat throughout the community in the form of central heat, heated pools and warm arboretums. This strategy lowers energy usage and costs to the local community, providing a method to recycle the large amount of waste energy that data centers produce.
To offset all of the heat that is produced by the thousands of servers in each data center, most data centers also require a strong cooling system. More energy is needed for cooling purposes than for actual data storage and processing, however, making this a very expensive process. Rather than constantly running the air conditioning system, many data center operators are turning to fans as a means of keeping servers cool. Even better, new research from The Green Grid, a non-profit consortium to improve the resource efficiency of data centers and business computing ecosystems, has revealed that direct and indirect use of natural cooling, such as fresh air in locations with cool and mild climates, is increasingly common in data centers. In fact, nearly half of data centers use some natural air method to cool units. With the implementation of fans and natural cooling, data center operators can realize energy savings of 50 percent on average throughout the year.
Alternate Energy Sources
Regardless of how many heating or cooling recycling programs a data center implements, however, there will always be a need for energy. Rather than purchasing energy produced from dirty sources such as coal, data center operators can elect to purchase sustainable energy from clean sources, including tidal, hydro, wind and geothermic energy. Geothermic energy may in some cases be ideal for data centers because, even in mass quantities, it releases zero emissions. With clean energy sources such as geothermic energy, data centers can reduce the toll that their energy production takes on the environment. But we still must be conscious of the impact of widely-used geothermic energy, as nothing is unlimited. Therefore, even with the implementation of clean energy sources, data centers must aim to lower energy consumption and streamline data center operations.
Standards Must Pave the Way
The final piece of the data center green revolution is industry standardization. Even though data centers around the world have integrated many sustainable best practices into their facilities, industry-wide standards and measurement tools are necessary to regulate and improve efficiency.
The Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio is the most widely accepted data center energy-efficiency metric. Developed by The Green Grid, PUE is designed to quantify the ratio between the overall energy used divided by the IT energy used. If the industry is able to slowly lower what is considered a “good” PUE for data centers, data center facilities will be able to considerably reduce the amount of energy they consume and work toward achieving a PUE of 1.0—the best PUE value possible, representing 100 percent efficiency.
Since the introduction of PUE measurement, there is already greater awareness of the proportion of power required to support data center functions versus operations. Interxion started measuring and improving its energy ratio since 2003, and such industry awareness has slowed the increase in energy usage by data centers, as demonstrated by Stanford professor Jonathan G. Koomey. In 2009, the average PUE for data centers was 2.0, with a 100 percent increase in energy expected by 2011. Instead, the average data center PUE today is 1.8, indicating that sustainable practices are already making vast improvements to data center facilities.
Where Do We Go From Here
The large data centers built today are much more efficient than the first ones that were built many years ago. With the growing array of sustainable practices and technologies to help optimize energy usage and costs, combined with industry standards, the Green Revolution is at the doorstep of the data center industry.
About the Author
Lex Coors is Vice President of the Data Center Technology and Engineering Group at Interxion. Lex has supervised the design, build and upgrade of more than 55,000m² of data center space in 28 locations in 11 countries. During the past 25 years, he has built exceptionally strong credentials in the design of versatile, cost-effective and energy-efficient data center infrastructure. Lex has pioneered several new approaches to data center design and management, including the improvement of power ratio efficiency between server load and transformer load, and the industry’s first ever modular approach to data center architecture.
Lex is a founder member of the Uptime Institute, a member of the European Commission DG Joint Research Committee on Sustainability and the European Data Center Code of Conduct Metrics Group. He also acts as Liaison Officer for The Green Grid in their collaboration with the European Commission, and he was a member of the Executive Advisory Board for the Uptime Institute’s recent symposium in New York, “Data Center Efficiency & Green Enterprise IT.”
Photo courtesy of miyukiutada.