The future of sustainable datacentres

In this guest post, David Gammie, CTO at iomart, sets out the role that smaller cloud provider can play in leading the way on green issues in the datacentre market

It’s no secret that datacentre sustainability is a challenge the cloud industry must tackle head on if we’re to continue digitising entire sectors while simultaneously meeting global net-zero targets.

There are around 8,000 datacentres globally and between 2015 and 2021, they stored an estimated 547 exabytes of data. These amounts will only grow as digital transformation projects expand, and more organisations embrace a cloud-first approach.

The impending adoption of artificial intelligence and the continued rollout of Internet of Things deployments will put more pressure on our datacentre infrastructure too, with additional power needed to run more advanced and complex software.

Much of the focus of private and public cloud providers over the last decade has therefore been on reducing the environmental impact of their datacentre estates. For the most part, this was driven by the providers’ own Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) targets and those of any investors.

In recent years, however, the pressure for more sustainable approaches to cloud technology has been driven by both:

1) Customers, who themselves have ever more challenging ESG targets to meet and stakeholders to manage; and

2) Significant increases in energy costs which has brought into sharp focus the need to both reduce consumption and look for more sustainable power sources.

The result of this is a cloud sector committed towards building a sustainable future that does not hinder its ability to achieve carbon neutrality.

How providers have responded

Most of the pressure put on the tech industry has been, arguably and rightfully, on the big three public cloud providers. Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud have a combined share of 66% of the global cloud market and are therefore responsible for the lion’s share of emissions.

When the hyperscalers adopt more sustainable approaches, it has a considerable impact on the emissions our sector emits overall while also giving the rest of our industry a benchmark to not only meet but try to improve upon.

In 2020, Microsoft Azure set itself a target of becoming carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030 – an ambitious aim which sets precedence for the entire sector.

As with any industry, however, modernisation in any form (be it digital or sustainable) is always more challenging for large organisations (despite the greater level of funding) – in the same way that a full cloud migration for a large global company will require more planning, effort, and time than a lift and shift for a SME business.

As such, smaller cloud providers have been able to design and adopt more sustainable practices in their datacentres at a more rapid pace in recent years – and have made considerable strides towards reducing their carbon emissions.

At iomart, for instance, our 13 UK datacentres are powered by 100% renewable energy from sources including solar, wind and hydro. It has also been open to deploy proof of concept technologies and techniques from start-up organisation to enable joint learning.

We shared some of this insight at the Climate Change conference in 2021. This included proof of concept testing of a world-first heat cooling system, which turns waste heat into power that drives our servers’ essential cooling system.

We know we have more to do, but cloud providers with smaller datacentre estates than the hyperscalers can make much more impactful changes quickly and effectively – helping our planet while also improving our offering to customers both economically and meeting ESG targets.

Small changes make a big difference

Cloud providers will always be responsible for their own emissions – and rightly so. But there’s also a shift that needs to happen to the way we design and deploy our solutions and, crucially, retire solutions we no longer use.

Everything from making sure our code isn’t longer than it needs to be, to appropriate management of infrastructure that is set up to run optimally, can considerably reduce the amount of energy needed to power solutions.

Similarly, as we work with businesses migrating to the cloud we use the opportunity to assess what applications need to move across and what can be retired – again, significantly reducing the power needed.

Finally, application modernisation and optimisation during the migration stage means organisations not only reduce their storage requirements, but it also allows businesses to do more with their data, integrating technologies such as AI and machine learning for wider business benefits.

In closing, cloud datacentre estates have come a long way over the last decade, and they will change considerably over the next 10 years.  Cloud providers and the hyperscalers are working tirelessly to make sure their infrastructure is as energy efficient as possible while simultaneously supporting the digital transformation of organisations.

The road to net zero for the tech industry isn’t going to be easy, but by making small changes every day – even to the way we code – we make that journey easier for everyone.

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