Power and water: The environmental balancing act datacentre operators need to address

The datacentre industry is going through a boom time at the moment, but operators must ensure all this growth does not come at a cost to the environment, writes Computer Weekly senior editor, Caroline Donnelly

The UK government is urging enterprises to speed up their cloud migrations in the interests of tackling climate change, claiming that it’s more environmentally friendly for their workloads to run in a public cloud datacentre than one they own and operate themselves.

With almost every hyperscale cloud firm announcing some form of attainment target for their use of renewable energy, while investing huge amounts in improving the energy efficiency of their facilities, it’s a difficult plea to argue against. But as more enterprise applications and workloads move to the cloud, more datacentres will need to be built to host them all. How sustainable is that trend?

Dublin is in the midst of a server farm boom, fuelled by the ferocious appetites of the hyperscale cloud and internet giants for datacentre capacity, but there are signs that its electricity grid is creaking under the pressure to supply them.

So much so that Ireland’s energy regulator has warned that, based on current growth trends, homes and businesses in the country could be blighted by blackouts in years to come because of how much power datacentres are drawing from the grid.

Amsterdam and Frankfurt are other examples of datacentre hubs whose national grids are struggling in the face of so much demand for server farm capacity, which, in turn, is forcing operators to consider alternative locations.

In Dublin’s case, the datacentre market is powered predominantly by non-renewable natural gas, which also raises questions about the environmental cost of all the datacentre development going on there.

And it’s not just energy supplies that datacentres are draining – concerns about the amount of clean drinking water these facilities are guzzling in drought-prone locations such as California, Singapore and Spain are also on the rise. The water consumption habits of datacentres have typically faced far less scrutiny by environmentalists and government policymakers, but also operators themselves.

But with water stress forecast to become an ever more prevalent problem across the world in years to come, that will need to change.

So much to do with how datacentres are planned, developed and built is in need of an urgent overhaul to ensure the explosive growth in this market does not come at a cost to the environment or the comfort of others.

The sector’s commitment to renewable energy transition and curbing its carbon emissions are all steps in the right direction, but there is still much more work to do.

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