Every so often, you may see articles discussing the carbon footprint of spam, or the environmental impact of gifs. These articles remind us that every action we take in the virtual world has a physical footprint somewhere – usually in a data centre. So if every single electronic communication makes a small contribution to global warming, you might imagine that data centres are up there with the oil giants, spewing emissions at an alarming rate and setting us all on the path towards total destruction. Thankfully, the truth is a much happier story. So let’s get straight into debunking those data centre myths around sustainability.
Myth debunked no. 1: Data centres are an efficient way to run modern IT
In recent years, society has undergone a bit of a shift in cultural thinking that relates to our growing environmental awareness. For example: people are increasingly expressing a preference for buying local rather than choosing to spend their money with internet giants and their internationally shipped products. From that perspective, large-scale data centres might seem irresponsible compared to smaller, on-premises server rooms. However, that logic doesn’t track. The economies of scale gained by running a larger data centre compared to powering and cooling a small server room make data centres the more efficient, more sustainable option.
Data centres also have the buying power and the agility to invest in the most modern technologies, enabling continuous improvements in efficiency that few businesses could afford for their server rooms. In this case, bigger is better – so long as it is built responsibly, and a business that moves their IT to a data centre will be reducing their environmental impact.
Myth debunked no. 2: Data centres don’t consume an unacceptable amount of energy
We know that reducing energy consumption is integral to cutting emissions and minimising global warming. Therefore, all energy intensive industries are deservedly under the spotlight – including data centres.
Yes, powering the infrastructure that keeps our economy going does use a lot of energy. But it’s not as black and white as all that. While the amount of data we produce and consume has been growing exponentially, data centre energy use has grown only incrementally thanks to the use of cutting-edge technologies. ‘Increasingly efficient IT hardware and a major shift to hyperscale data centres have helped to keep electricity demand flat, despite exponential growth in demand for data centre services,’ confirms the IEA in a 2019 article on the relationship between data centres and energy.
What’s more, many data centres source their energy from renewables rather than from fossil-fuel fired power plants, which makes a clear impact on the carbon footprint of this energy use. It’s also worth noting that data centres are responding to demand, not creating it. If they weren’t around, the data would be stored in smaller server rooms that operate with far less energy efficiency and a much greater relative carbon footprint. Moreover, some data centres actually contribute energy in the form of waste heat.
Myth debunked no. 3: Data centre coolants are not polluting the environment
Chemical coolants are sometimes needed for CRAC and immersion cooling systems, giving rise to the myth that data centre coolants are polluting the environment. However, this is simply not the case. First of all, the UK has strict regulations about the disposal of such chemicals and data centres take these very seriously. To do otherwise would be too great a risk to a data centre’s commercial and social license to operate. But secondly, many UK data centres are replacing conventional air-conditioning with water-based systems. For example, at 4D we developed an award-winning adiabatic cooling process that not only eliminates the need for chemical coolants but also minimises water waste.
Myth debunked no. 4: Data centres are an essential part of a sustainable future
The biggest myth of all is the idea that there is a future without data centres. The world is an increasingly digital place, and all that data needs to be stored somewhere. Anyone suggesting there will be a time when we don’t need the infrastructure provided by data centres has, in all likelihood, misunderstood what a data centre does.
Some people might say that we don’t need physical storage anymore because everything has moved to the cloud. But of course, ‘the cloud’ is just a whimsical way of describing physical infrastructure that is accessed via the internet. The further we progress our collective digital transformation, the more data centres we need to support the ‘background workings’ of that digitalisation, e.g. self-driving cars, 5G, etc.
Furthermore, the development of new tools and technologies to address everything from climate change to global pandemics, relies on the capabilities of data centre infrastructure, which can support the high performance computing that drives these kinds of programmes. Take, for example, the United Nations Global Platform, which was built to enable international collaboration around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This advanced platform is being used in many different projects, such as to develop ways to measure the CO2 emissions of maritime transport, or estimate the shrinkage or expansion of water surfaces. Or, a different example, the use of powerful simulated weather predictions to forecast the production of wind and solar power – so called advanced generation forecasting, for which artificial intelligence and big data is described as a core enabling factor. Data centres are at the foundation of a sustainable future. We certainly couldn’t achieve it without them.
Room for improvement?
All of this myth-busting is not to say you shouldn’t ask for more from your data centre. There is always room for improvement in efficiency and sustainability. Moreover, choosing a data centre based on its sustainability credentials is a sure way to get those operators that are falling behind on their environmental commitments to up their game. Ask the big questions, and expect the highest standards from your data centre.