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Datacentres and climate change: Operators accused of being all talk and no action on sustainability

Datacentre operators talk a good fight when it comes to tackling climate change, but there is far more they should and could be doing to make their operations more sustainable, say experts

Datacentre operators still have a long way to go to fully grasp what it means to run a sustainable business, despite numerous pronouncements from the colocation and cloud giants about wanting to curb their carbon emissions and ramp up their use of renewables.

The past couple of years has seen a steady stream of public commitments from the world’s major datacentre operators, outlining their plans to do more to tackle climate change by introducing measures to make their sites more energy-efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.

But there is still so much more the datacentre sector should be doing to minimise the environmental impact of its activities, beyond simply trying to lower the amount of energy it uses and the carbon emissions it generates.

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, the datacentre industry is finding itself under growing pressure to minimise the amount of water it consumes to keep facilities cool, particularly in cases where operators have sites in drought-prone areas.

The UK government’s recently published net-zero strategy also made the case for datacentre operators to reuse the waste heat their facilities generate to warm homes and local businesses for energy efficiency and carbon reduction reasons.

This is a concept that operators in the Nordics, for example, have fully embraced over the years, with a mix of reference case studies emerging at both ends of the scale. These include datacentres pumping their waste heat into city-wide, district heating systems to more localised deployments – where the heat is pumped into neighbouring farms or greenhouses to support food production.

Even before the UK government published its net-zero strategy in October 2021, efforts to make heat reuse by datacentres – as well as other commercial entities – more commonplace have been under way for a while, with small-scale, experimental deployments on the rise.

Throwing away servers

On a related note, and for several years now, environmental researchers and academics working in the field of sustainability have been urging the datacentre sector to change the way it works to align with the principles of operating within a circular economy.

This means introducing hardware procurement policies that prioritise the use of refurbished kit and ensuring that, during refresh cycles, the server units that are being replaced are recycled rather than shipped off to landfill sites.

“There is a lot of kit that goes through hyperscale datacentres, and I’ve seen figures floating around that state there are 400,000 servers a year [being deployed] in these facilities,” Max Schulze, founder and executive chairman of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA), tells Computer Weekly.

“And some of these sites have annual refresh cycles, which means they are throwing away servers on an annual basis, which is just insane. There is no way we can continue at that pace of hardware consumption for the next 100 years in a sustainable way.”

The reuse and recycling concept also extends to encouraging operators to consider repurposing existing buildings when scouting about for new datacentre locations and using recycled materials to build their new server farms.

This is because creating a new building from scratch is an energy-intensive process that also generates a lot of carbon emissions, which is why reusing existing sites and materials is considered a far more sustainable way to build a datacentre.

But it is very rare for operators to factor in the energy consumed and the greenhouse gas emissions generated during the construction of their sites, or during the creation of the hardware they kit them out with, says Schulze.

“Their sustainability frameworks do not consider hardware emissions at all, just the amount of energy the hardware uses when it is in operation,” he says.

“There is a lot of misconception in the datacentre sector about what sustainability means”
Max Schulze, Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance

But while recycling hardware, minimising water use and reusing the heat generated by datacentres are all things that environmentally responsible operators should be doing, there is – for many firms in the sector – little financial incentive to do so.

“There is a lot of misconception in the datacentre sector about what sustainability means, because at the moment, for a lot of people, it’s [just] energy efficiency,” says Schulze.

“But energy efficiency is business as usual, because if I run a datacentre or any kind of IT equipment, I want to run it as energy-efficiently as possible, because that’s my biggest operational cost.”

Running energy-efficient datacentres makes good economic sense for a sector whose biggest line item is the amount it pays out for power, but currently, scant progress is being made on re-engineering others parts of datacentres’ operations in the interests of sustainability.

“The concept of sustainability – meaning reducing and minimising my environmental impact, while balancing my economics and also checking that I’m having a positive impact on society – has not arrived in the sector,” says Schulze.

“The big tech companies understand it, but they also have an interest in reducing it to an energy discussion at the moment, because that’s something that can be easily fixed with certificates and power purchase agreements.”

Easy wins make for great PR

A recurring observation (and possible criticism) of the datacentre sector is that there is a reluctance to embrace change and a tendency for operators to do things the way they have always done them.

This attitude is often attributed to the fact that datacentres are what keep the wheels of our (increasingly) digital economy turning, which means any downtime incidents can have far-reaching consequences for the firms involved, from both a financial and reputational point of view.

Therefore, operators prefer to stick with what they know works when building and kitting out new sites, by following the same tried and tested procedures that countless others in the industry have used in the past to build datacentres.

And with the global demand for datacentre capacity showing no sign of slowing down any time soon, operators are under pressure to bring new sites online as quickly and efficiently as possible – which, again, leaves little time (or appetite) to switch up their processes.

“Digital is changing the world and saving lives, and we cannot operate whole sectors without digital, but all this digitisation has an environmental impact,” says Rabih Bashroush, global head of the IT infrastructure advisory at datacentre resiliency think-tank the Uptime Institute.

“But when you have an industry that makes digitisation possible, as is the case with datacentres, and you are growing at speed to keep up with demand, you cannot devote resources to try and look at how you address sustainability. That is a big problem for fast-growing companies.”

“Suppliers love to talk about sustainability as long as it doesn’t cost money”
Rabih Bashroush, Uptime Institute

And although it is fair to say that enterprise IT buyers are becoming more mindful of sustainability, there is not enough demand yet for it to make financial sense for operators to switch up their business models in ways that stand to drastically minimise their environmental impact, says Bashroush.

“The problem is, suppliers follow the market,” he adds. “And if the demand is not there [from buyers] for green services, there is no reason to change. If they’re growing at double digits, they cannot do this sustainably without paying big amounts of money and increasing the cost base for our services. And suppliers love to talk about sustainability as long as it doesn’t cost money.”

Expanding on this point, Schulze points to the pipeline of datacentre projects that are planned over the coming year as proof that operators are in no hurry to ensure their businesses are growing in a sustainable way.

“There’s a gigawatt of datacentres being built in Europe this year,” he says. “Are the operators building those sites out of sustainable materials? No. Are they doing anything different than they used to do? No. So do I think they’ve really got the message about sustainability? No. I really don’t think so.”

What makes this situation all the more frustrating, says Schulze, is that the operators are quick to make big public declarations on their websites or at press conferences about their commitments to combating climate change, but invariably it is nothing more than “greenwashing”.

“The websites of the hyperscalers say things like they want to tackle climate change faster than anyone else, but when you ask them why they are still using cement and not more sustainable composite materials to build their datacentres, they say because their main metric is cost,” says Schulze.

“It’s this ‘public claims versus reality’ situation and it is very frustrating for a lot of people in the supply chain who are trying to sell a more sustainable solution because that’s what these companies say they want, but then nobody is buying them.”

Keeping costs down and profits high

Continuing to build and run datacentres the same way as in the past could have catastrophic consequences for the environment, says Schulze.

“The whole economic incentive system is built to drive consumption, and as long as that’s the paradigm, the only way to get around that is to create infrastructure that has no environmental footprint,” he says. “In the digital world, that is possible because almost all equipment in IT can be refurbished and reused.”

This is a view that Cristian Parrino, chief sustainability officer at the open source-championing not-for-profit OpenUK, agrees with. “As long as the objective [of operators] is to support perpetual growth, they’re never going to be sustainable,” he tells Computer Weekly. “They can be net-zero, but that net-zero [position] may not be sustainable.”

In late 2021, OpenUK published its Patchwork Kilt carbon-negative datacentre blueprint that outlines a series of steps and practices it claims the global datacentre industry should consider adopting to put operators on a path towards becoming carbon-negative.

The blueprint champions hardware reuse, while also making the case for edge datacentres to be built in vacated retail sites and office buildings to breathe new life into the nation’s high streets and town centres, while making it easier for the waste heat they generate to be used locally.

Over time, it is hoped that the Kilt’s areas of coverage will expand, as contributors  to the project (which includes the SDIA) put forward their own suggestions about how the world’s datacentres can become more environmentally friendly.

Its overarching mission, however, is to help the datacentre industry as a whole cut its carbon emissions by 80%, while also contributing towards a 90% reduction in the amount of physical resources that go into constructing and kitting out server farms.

“As long as the objective of operators is to support perpetual growth, they’re never going to be sustainable”
Cristian Parrino, OpenUK

Quoting figures from datacentre infrastructure refurbishment and recycling firm ITRenew, Parrino says many of the servers that are junked by the hyperscalers during their hardware refresh cycles are high-quality bits of kit that have rarely been used to full capacity.  

“ITRenew is refurbishing very high-end equipment that has only been utilised to 15-20% of its capacity, so not only is the turnover rate of the equipment really fast and massive, but this equipment has only seen a fraction of usage, really,” he says.

“Reusing and refurbishing this equipment is not just the right thing to do – it’s the must thing to do. You can’t possibly sit there and swap out equipment that’s been utilised at such a low level without a circular model behind it, because it’s just not sustainable.”

The ideas being promoted through Patchwork Kilt are not “anything new” and “every single thing in the blueprint has been done before”, says Parrino. But what it does do is present these concepts in a way that showcases how they are interlinked and can be combined to help the industry work towards creating carbon-negative datacentres.

“It takes best practices across every possible category, ties them together and shows people how they relate to each other,” he says.

“We’re only referencing best practices where there’s evidence, where there’s case studies and where there are resources for people to go to. What we’re doing for the first time is tying it together in a way that anyone – be that a regulatory body or a building manager or datacentre manager – can see everything they need to take into account to build greener datacentres.”

Read more about datacentre sustainability

What the Patchwork Kilt model also does is reinforce the fact that the datacentre industry has all the knowhow and technical components it needs to support the growth of a digital economy with little to no environmental impact at all, but it continues to ignore it, says the SDIA’s Schulze.

“Even though I’m not a fan of unlimited consumption, it is theoretically possible, if people follow its principles, to have an industry for the first time on this planet that drives economic growth with no physical resource consumption,” he says.

“I can sell my knowledge online to somebody in Asia if I want to, and make money without flying there, for example. And the digital world is the greatest opportunity for creating a sustainable economy that we have, but we need to ask the right questions about infrastructure.”

One might argue that the looming and very real threat of climate disaster should be enough of a motivator for operators to act, but behavioural change will be difficult to achieve if there is no incentive to change, says OpenUK’s Parrino.

“For behavioural change to happen, you need to make the desired behaviour more compelling and easier than the current way of doing things, and coming up with a mechanism that makes them repeat it enough times that it becomes part of the routine – that’s the key,” he says.

“Where infrastructure is concerned, it’s about making it more convenient and easier, and regulation is one way of making a behaviour more compelling.” 

“Businesses that don’t act in the right way will be left behind”
Cristian Parrino, OpenUK

And according to Schulze, regulatory intervention is on the horizon. “Society and business can’t exist without digital infrastructure, which is very similar [in terms of importance] to energy, railroads and other utilities,” he says. “And what have all public goods got in common? They are all highly regulated, and [the sector] will see a lot more regulation.”

He adds: “I know for a fact that the European Union, for example, is looking at this and digital infrastructure will be regulated like a public good so that it is sustainable, good for society and good for the environment, so that business practices that don’t align with that will not be permitted in digital infrastructure any more.”

Another factor that might compel operators to change how they do things is if the way they operate proves off-putting to IT buyers in the future, which could happen – as the amount of climate change activism going on in the world has ramped up, and the impact of climate change events become ever more visible in the media.

Parrino adds: “I am very close to the youth movement and their rhetoric and narrative has gone from ‘let’s try to influence the people in the room to change’ to realising that the people in the room are never going to be influenced.

“So, businesses that don’t act in the right way will be left behind, because the generation who are going to own the wallets in the next 10-20 years are not going to deal with them any more.”

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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