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Looking beyond PUE to assess the true environmental impacts of datacentre growth

Sustainability experts want operators to look beyond the accepted datacentre metrics to assess the impact the industry's growth is having on the environment

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The datacentre market is in the midst of an unprecedented period of growth, driven by enterprise and consumer demand for cloud, internet-based services and connected devices.

The problem is, our propensity for living our lives increasingly online has conspired to make digital hoarders out of us all, claims Simon Brady, chairman of The Green Grid’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea) liaison committee.

“We don’t delete anything and we have massive amounts of data duplication occurring online. All of that information needs to be stored, and is consuming energy,” he says.

“As a business, once our records get over a certain age, we put them into paper archives and move them offline, and – from a legal point of view – they are deleted and then recycled.

“We don’t have that with the internet, and I’m not saying we should or should not, but that’s definitely a discussion we should be having,” he says.

This trend is one of the reasons why Cisco predicts the number of hyperscale datacentres – the huge, highly automated server farms favoured by the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook – will increase from 259 to 485 between now and 2020.

Demand for colocation capacity is also on the up, as enterprises look to downsize their own involvement (and investment) in running datacentres.

The bulk of this activity is occurring in the developed world, but the demand for datacentre capacity is steadily creeping up in emerging markets too, adds Roel Castelein, membership services director at The Green Grid.

“Emerging markets are growing. They are working on 5G and the moment it gets there and everyone starts using it, the amount of data growth will be staggering,” he tells Computer Weekly.

Increasing energy use

Current industry estimates put global datacentre energy consumption rates at anywhere between 2% and 5%, and this will rise as more users come online in the emerging markets, says Castelein.

“You cannot put your head in the sand about this any more, because you can see the size of the growth [on the horizon] and you know how much energy that [meeting demand] will consume,” he adds.

With this in mind, sustainability experts are calling for investigations into the datacentre industry’s power consumption habits to be expanded to include details of how much energy goes into creating the hardware that sits inside them.

It is an idea Deborah Andrews, associate professor of design at London South Bank University’s School of Engineering, is keen to see the industry get behind, as few seem to realise just how much energy is used to create computing equipment.

“To manufacture one gram of computer chips, for example, you have to use 136 grams of fossil fuels. The energy inputs are incredibly high even though chips weigh fractions of grams,” she says. 

“The more datacentres we build and the more servers and electrical equipment we install and utilise, the more significant hardware of every description is going to become, and we need to develop some new metrics that really take that and other resource use into account.”

Brady agrees it is a topic that needs more attention, in light of the ever-shortening hardware refresh cycles some datacentre operators seem to be working to.

“When I started out in the industry 20 years ago at IBM, if someone bought a server or system from IBM it would last you three to five years,” he says.

“The refresh rates we’re talking about now across the entire industry are around eight to 12 months. It is unsustainable, and we should address it as an industry because of the huge amounts of energy consumed during the creation, recycling and destruction of this hardware.”

Lifecycle of a datacentre

Andrews’s way of thinking feeds into a wider discussion that has been playing out in the industry for a while now, around the practicalities of using life cycle assessment (LCA) tools to gauge how big an environmental footprint datacentres leave.

The Green Grid published a whitepaper on this topic in 2012 outlining details of the elements operators should consider tracking to gain a full 360-degree view of how sustainable their site operations are.

“LCA allows you to take a more holistic view of datacentre sustainability by tracking multiple impacts”
Deborah Andrews, London South Bank University’s School of Engineering

The paper suggests keeping tabs on the environmental impacts of datacentre kit, including both mechanical and engineering (M&E) systems and IT equipment, from the point of purchase until it reaches end of life.

So, instead of relying solely on single-issue metrics – such as power usage effectiveness (PUE) or carbon emissions data – to assess the operational efficiency of a datacentre when it is in use, a wider range of elements are tracked over the course of the datacentre’s entire lifetime. 

“The benefit of LCA is that it allows you to take a more holistic view of datacentre sustainability by tracking multiple impacts,” says Andrews.

“If your datacentre has excellent, low-level energy consumption but the building is using other resources in a bad way to achieve that, those things cancel each other out. What LCA allows you to do is weigh everything up in relation to each other.”

It is a notion Andrews would like to see the industry pay closer attention to, along with how the growth of the datacentre market as a whole is affecting the Earth’s supply of non-renewable materials.

Read more about datacentre sustainability

Discussions of this nature tend to focus on what Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and others are doing to downsize their reliance on fossil fuels to power their datacentres.

However, Andrews says such discussions should be expanded to include talk about how best to conserve the finite supply of raw materials required to build datacentre hardware and other IT equipment.

“We, as a society, are very wasteful, in that we take, make, use and dispose of resources without much consideration for the consequences. Where some materials are concerned, we will run out of them eventually. And some more quickly than others,” she says.

“We do really need to look forward and – even if we are relatively okay from a supply perspective at the moment – plan for growth in datacentres, electronics and the communications markets.”

As an example of this, Andrews cites the uncertainty over the supplies of rare Earth elements, which are in high demand by manufacturers in the IT, mobile, automotive and clean energy markets.

The need to safeguard supplies is particularly acute, given China produces around 97% of the Earth’s rare metals and has, in the past, moved to safeguard the supply of these materials for local manufacturers through export quotas, she says.

“Rare Earth elements are required for a lot of things, and are commonly used in emerging and renewable technologies. They've been ring-fenced by China because it wants to hang onto them for its own markets,” says Andrews.

“Not only does this create security – from a supply point of view – but could also lead to the price of them going up.”

Recycle, re-use and refurbish

When it comes to minimising the potential impact the datacentre industry’s projected growth could have on the Earth’s resources, encouraging operators to recycle, re-use and do what they can to prolong the life of their hardware assets is essential, says Askar Sheibani, CEO of IT repairs firm Comtek.

Unfortunately, the datacentre industry’s understandable preoccupation with uptime and service availability means operators often feel pressure to invest in the latest and greatest technology, he tells Computer Weekly, whether they need it or not.

In many cases, operators end up committing to hardware refreshes they may not really need, under pressure from manufacturers, he claims.

“We have contracts in place with major service providers which have moved away from manufacturers because they have threatened to pull support for infrastructure-critical products,” he says.

“It’s a big challenge for us to change the throwaway culture of IT equipment and encourage people to resist the pressure to upgrade when they do not need to.”

As an example of such pressure, Sheibani points to the push for operators to upgrade their 10Gb Ethernet and fibre channel networking kit, despite the fact these products are more than capable of supporting the vast majority of services.

“Very few places will require 100Gb or 400Gb speeds, but the problem operators have is that manufacturers will tell them they are pulling support for the 10Gb products, or they feel under pressure to upgrade out of fear something might go wrong if they do not,” he says.

All-or-nothing infrastructure upgrades

There is also a tendency among operators to upgrade their entire datacentre infrastructure when only part of it needs replacing, but it is possible to integrate legacy technologies with more modern kit.

“There is no doubt that legacy and modern products can be integrated and work together, but unfortunately that’s not happening on the ground,” he says. “That’s due to a lack of knowledge on the customer side.” 

That said, Niall McEntegart, datacentre operations director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa and Asia-Pacific at Facebook, says this piecemeal approach to infrastructure upgrades does seem to be gaining ground in some parts of the industry.

“There is a movement at the moment towards trying to disaggregate hardware and the rack, in general, which is an excellent idea,” he says.

“If you have a database and want to increase your storage capacity, having disaggregated hardware means you don’t have to replace all of it if you want to change your hard drive.”

“There is a movement trying to disaggregate hardware and the rack, which is an excellent idea”
Niall McEntegart, Facebook

McEntegart made the remarks during a sustainability-focused panel debate in November 2016 at the Datacentre Dynamics Zettastructure event in London, adding that wider adoption of the approach would dramatically reduce the overall energy that goes into building datacentres.

“Instead of having to wheel out racks and completely recycle them before manufacturing new equipment from scratch, this approach dramatically reduces that overall energy need from a sustainability point of view,” he says.

New, power-reducing technologies

The Green Grid’s Brady says it is wrong to consider all infrastructure upgrades bad for the environment, given that the deployment of newer technologies in the datacentre can help reduce power consumption.

“Developments in technology mean we can actually save energy by replacing what would seem like a fully working device or parts with new ones,” he says. “New facilities, such as what Facebook is doing with Open Compute in its hyperscale datacentres in Sweden, are a great example of this.”

And, by ensuring the products being replaced are disposed of responsibly and in a way that promotes the recycling of core components, operators can help lower their power consumption while doing their bit to conserve the supply of other raw materials.

“Tens of thousands of circuit boards are recycled by dedicated global datacentre specialists,” says Brady.

“In more traditional datacentres, replacing the servers after three years will still save energy. Specialist companies help dispose of these devices in an eco-friendly way, or will pay to remove the old hardware, service it, and sell on the used equipment to give it a second life.”

Championing sustainability

Even with all this in mind, London South Bank University’s Andrews and others admit there is still some work to do in terms of impressing on operators the importance of ensuring the continued growth of the datacentre market proceeds in a sustainable way.

“My impression, as an outsider, is that a lot of the people in the industry are terribly concerned their systems are robust and don’t fail, and everything else pales into insignificance,” she says.

That said, the larger players in the market seem to be more aware than others of the need to ensure the industry’s growth and activities are not at the expense of the Earth’s resources, she adds, but there are many more for whom sustainability is simply not on the corporate agenda.

“I don’t think it’s unwillingness, but I think sustainability might be more of a luxury for some people because they are trying to keep their businesses up and running, and that’s really sad,” she says.

“As a champion for sustainability, I think it’s something that should be embedded into all business practices, because it often makes good business sense.

“If you are reducing energy consumption because you’re making things more efficient, you are going to pay less for your energy,” says Andrews.

This was last published in November 2016

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