Energy-efficient Europe: How the datacentre sector is keeping it clean

With users becoming increasingly savvy about environmental issues, we take a look at how the datacentre sector is responding

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Keeping a lid on energy costs is a major challenge for datacentre operators, prompting them to invest large sums in technologies to make their facilities as efficient as possible.

A power usage efficiency (PUE) rating of less than 1.5 is the holy grail that many are working towards through the use of innovative cooling technologies, server virtualisation and better-performing hardware.

The datacentre sector is also a major consumer of non-renewable energy, which has seen it come under pressure from environmental campaigners and end-users to clean up its act and get more energy-efficient.

Gary Cook, a senior IT analyst at environmental lobby group Greenpeace, says that with companies increasingly including carbon footprint reduction pledges and the like in their corporate social responsibility policies, it is in operators’ best interests to toe the line.

“Customers want to know that if they move to the cloud, or expand their operations online, are their providers going to help them meet these goals? This is increasingly part of the conversation in this sector,” says Cook.

“And the companies that are leading on this front are at an advantage to make the most of that trend.”

Even more so if, as Paul Jayson, a real estate partner at law firm DLA Piper, points out, operators do the decent thing and pass on the efficiency savings they make to users.

“With energy costs making up a substantial proportion of the total basket of occupier costs, reductions in these can have a significant impact on datacentre users,” he says.

Looking to Europe

In 2008, the European Commission introduced its voluntary code of conduct for energy efficiency in datacentres to tackle the collective rise in datacentre power consumption across the continent.

According to the Commission, 105 organisations have agreed to take part in the code of conduct, and have promised to undergo energy audits and cut the amount of energy they use.

The majority of participants (39%) are from the UK, France (19%) and The Netherlands (10%), and there is a smattering of members from Belgium and Spain.

Interestingly, none of the organisations on the list is from northern Europe, and Christophe Garnier, a member of the EMEA technical working group at energy efficiency-focused datacentre consortium The Green Grid, says that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

“Datacentres across Europe are working hard to lower energy consumption and reduce emissions, but in northern Europe, countries such as Norway and Finland are doing particularly well due to the natural resources that are available to operators,” he says.

In the cooler countries of northern Europe, datacentres do not need to invest so heavily in the cooling process, so vast amounts of energy are saved

Christophe Garnier, The Green Grid

For instance, Garnier cites the high availability of renewable energy sources in these northern countries, where the use of hydroelectricity, wind farms and solar power is more commonplace than elsewhere in Europe.

“Additionally, the cooling process used in the majority of datacentres consumes a large amount of energy, but in the cooler countries of northern Europe, datacentres do not need to invest so heavily in the cooling process, so vast amounts of energy are saved this way,” he adds.

That is certainly the case for Verne Global, which is headquartered in the UK but operates a datacentre in Iceland. This is partly because of the cost benefits of running the facility in a colder climate, but Iceland is also the only country in Europe that is fuelled by 100% renewable energy sources.

Verne Global’s facility is dual-sourced – it is powered by both Iceland’s supplies of geothermal and hydroelectric energy.

Dominic Ward, the company’s vice-president of corporate and business development, says the site’s green credentials are a boon as environmental concerns rise up many CIOs' agendas.

He cites the example of car manufacturer BMW, whose use of Verne Global’s datacentre was heavily influenced by how energy-efficient and environmentally friendly it was.

The company drew on the facility’s compute power during the development of its electric-powered i3 and i8 cars, as part of a wider push by BMW to keep the environmental impact of the vehicles’ creation as small as possible.

“Green energy is higher up the agenda than it has ever been before,” says Ward. “I’ve been in the datacentre market in various guises for a decade, and it wasn’t really a major topic of conversation back then, although it was in the background.”

What has changed in that time, he says, is the size of the datacentre economy, fuelled in part by the growth of online services and cloud computing.

As this sector has grown, it has drawn attention to the potentially negative effects datacentres can have on the environment, and operators have had to respond.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

For datacentre providers whose locations preclude them from taking easy advantage of renewable energy sources or natural cooling, there are other ways to make their facilities more efficient, says Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of 4D Data Centres, which operates a tier 3 facility in Surrey.

“Traditional datacentre air-conditioning units – even the most modern and energy-efficient ones – can only achieve real-world PUE figures of 1.3 to 1.5,” he says.

“Although we have installed nearly every conceivable green upgrade to our datacentre, the biggest contributor to our 1.14 PUE was evaporative cooling.”

Most people who operate datacentres are seeing their energy demands increase and need to look at what their options are to reduce their emissions

Gary Cook, Greenpeace

This technology, which is becoming increasingly common in datacentres, uses water evaporation to reduce the temperature of the air inside the facility.

“Nearly all the new datacentres being built by the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon employ evaporative cooling,” says Bedell-Pearce.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace’s Cook has this advice for operators looking to make positive changes to the way their facilities are powered: “The first thing to assess is: what’s my energy footprint and what’s its growth likely to be? Most people who operate datacentres are seeing their energy demands increase and need to look at what their options are to reduce their emissions.”

As with Verne Global, a facility's location will largely dictate how viable it is to run it on renewable energy. But Cook says it is worth any operator asking its existing utility provider whether there are any “cleaner” power plans in the offing, or to shop around and find one.

“There are a lot of discussions about climate and renewable energy targets going on in the EU and a greater need for more businesses to stand up and say, ‘hey, we’re an important part of the economy – we need to have greater support and better supply of renewable energy because we’re at a competitive disadvantage’,” says Cook.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but you need to get started because if you change and grow in ways that increase your dependence on dirty sources of energy, it will become that much more difficult to navigate your way out further down the line.”

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