Sustainability is a subject on many people’s minds, regardless of their attitudes towards the usually small but well-publicised protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, School Strike 4 Climate and Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies.
Many – perhaps most – organisations are looking for and acting on ways to improve the sustainability of their datacentres and IT operations more generally.
Pure Storage and The University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures recently surveyed 100 sustainability managers with some interesting results.
Over three-quarters of respondents agreed that organisations cannot reach their sustainability goals without significantly reducing IT and datacentre energy usage, but only 9% were fully considering the sustainability of their datacentres. And only 5% thought they were receiving sufficiently detailed sustainability-related data from their datacentre providers.
So, what can be done? Large datacentre operators are well placed to answer some of the questions raised by this topic.
Sustainability is a broad non-functional requirement, says D.K. Sinha, Rackspace’s president of public cloud business unit. It is being driven by governments as well as organisations’ own policies, and investors and customers increasingly expect to see a sustainability agenda.
After all, datacentres are power guzzlers, with the power consumption of artificial intelligence (AI) doubling every three or four months, “so we have a big role to play”, says Sinha, adding that Rackspace is looking for green power sources for its datacentres and is consolidating those facilities to improve efficiency.
Moving to large datacentres or colocation facilities gives a step change in efficiency, says Macquarie Data Centres group executive David Hirst. Doing either a lift-and-shift migration or switching to cloud-based applications makes for significant power usage effectiveness (PUE) gains, Hirst says, referring to the total power used by the facility relative to that used by IT equipment. Modern datacentres have a PUE around 1.3, compared to 2.0 or more for small-scale installations in office buildings.
Datacentre operators focus on driving down PUE, says Hirst, and are mindful of using equipment efficiently. That doesn’t just reduce the amount of power used, it also extends the life of the equipment (and of the datacentre itself), so less goes to landfill after recycling opportunities have been exhausted.
A datacentre is a big environment with lots of different but connected equipment, so it is important to make sure it works efficiently from both design and operational perspectives. One way this is achieved is by applying fluid dynamics at the planning stage, involving suppliers and in-house engineers in the project.
Well-managed datacentres take care to keep hot and cold air apart, for example, by using blanking plates in and between racks. The exact layout of the equipment and tidy cabling contribute to better airflow, and together these measures help achieve a better PUE.
PUE is well known, but Gavin Dudley, Fujitsu’s head of datacentres, says other measurements to be considered include WUE (water usage effectiveness) – and incidentally, Fujitsu offsets its water consumption by paying the supplier to purify as much water as it uses. There’s also CUE (carbon usage effectiveness), with greater use of renewable energy driving a better CUE, and DPPE (datacentre performance per energy unit), but Dudley notes that the jury is still out on whether CUE or DPPE is more appropriate.
Another way of reducing the energy cost of running a datacentre is to adopt free cooling. In a typical implementation, rather than recirculating chilled air, the hot air is exhausted from the building and cooler outside air is drawn in – much like opening a car window instead of using the air conditioning on a mild but sunny day. To maximise the number of days when free cooling can be used, it is sometimes combined with running equipment at higher temperatures than usual, while keeping within manufacturers’ specifications.
Backup specialist Commvault uses water-based free cooling for its Leed-certified primary datacentre in New Jersey, and last year it sufficed for 201 days, saving approximately 663,300kWh and avoiding some 155,000kg of carbon dioxide emissions, explains Martin Creighan, Commvault’s area vice-president for Australia and New Zealand. The system also recycles condensation to reduce total water usage.
AI and liquid cooling
AI will touch everything, suggests Hirst, and datacentres are central to training and inferencing. This means improvements in IT sustainability will have a big global effect. On the other hand, AI should improve business efficiency, and that will result in environmental gains which offset the additional datacentre power consumption caused by running AI models. For example, Macquarie Data Centres is looking to use AI for predictive maintenance, which should improve efficiency.
Hirst says the growth in AI, the internet of things and other technologies means higher densities in datacentres, and therefore more cooling. Looking at GPUs alone, the power consumption per chip is increasing tenfold – power draws of 1kW per chip is on the way. This suggests loads of as much as 80kW per rack, and air cooling is insufficient once you go above 30kW.
Instead, liquid cooling is needed, whether that’s direct to chip, immersion, or some other arrangement, and this will bring “a big change to the datacentre industry”. At the Macquarie Park datacentre campus, for example, Macquarie deployed a custom-built immersion cooling environment optimised for Submer’s liquid cooling technology over the space of a few months.
Several Fujitsu datacentre tenants are also running projects involving immersion cooling. Among the issues noted by Dudley are that vendors sometimes deny warranty coverage for equipment that has been immersion cooled. And equipment sold as being suitable for immersion cooling can merely be a stripped down and over-priced version of a regular product. Additionally, the liquid used for immersion cooling still has to be cooled, just as with air cooling.
Liquid cooling to the chip is less dramatic, as it involves piping water to cool components that run particularly hot, such as GPUs. One example is Lenovo’s Neptune Direct to Node cooling system, which is up to 40% more efficient than traditional fan cooling, according to Scott Tease, Lenovo’s vice-president and general manager of high-performance computing and AI. The company also offers a water-cooled rear door heat exchanger that cools hot air as it leaves the rack and is 3.5 times more efficient than air alone.
The industry is still working on the PUE implications of high-density workloads such as AI. They will still be efficient even if PUEs become slightly worse, says Hirst, noting that more-efficient algorithms and coding also have a part to play. Not only do they allow results to be obtained more quickly – they also improve the overall efficiency of the datacentre for a given set of workloads.
Commvault’s Creighan says containing data proliferation and limiting data movement can help to improve efficiency as well, citing a third-party study which found that Commvault’s Metallic data protection system can help customers shift power consumption to more efficient systems.
Furthermore, it found that customers could reduce their data footprints by up to 38% due to its ability to reserve and use the proper type of storage, as well as taking advantage of more-efficient cloud-based infrastructure and storage.
Tapping green energy sources
Some of the measures taken to improve datacentre sustainability may seem pedestrian but are still of value. Macquarie Data Centres is using solar panels, rainwater harvesting and in cooler climates, natural cold air induction to reduce carbon footprint. The company is also upgrading older datacentres to extend their useful lives, reducing the amount of equipment going to landfill.
On-site solar panels can replace mains electricity to a small extent. While Fujitsu’s Eight Mile Plains datacentre in Brisbane has a 99kW rooftop solar system, that only represents around 3% of the facility’s total electricity consumption.
So, Fujitsu is working to procure renewable energy. While more than 50% of the electricity currently used by all of Fujitsu’s operations in Australia comes from renewable sources, there are limits on availability. The varying carbon intensity of electricity generation around the country is also a consideration.
Fujitsu uses renewable energy power purchase agreements (PPAs) as a way of directly reducing its carbon footprint as opposed to offset arrangements. The current agreements are for wind power, but the company wants to add solar providers as that will “flatten out the line of availability of renewable power”, according to Dudley.
Looking ahead, Dudley says work is underway to develop micro nuclear reactors that fit into shipping containers and generate up to 20MW of electricity, allowing datacentres to be decoupled from the grid and potentially changing their locations. “We certainly need to find a solution that isn’t coal or gas, as wind and solar aren’t enough,” he adds.
Datacentres are often the focus of a lot of attention and have, for example, been targeted by climate emergency, Dudley says. That said, he notes that the power consumption of datacentres around the world has increased by just 4% over a period when the compute power they deliver has grown a hundredfold.
Craig Somerville, executive general manager of his eponymous IT service provider, says his company uses sustainability as a selection criterion when choosing a datacentre.
A datacentre that ran on 100% renewable power would be a game changer, he says, but while some operators are moving in the right direction, loads have already increased from 2-4kW per rack to 8-12kW. He suggests that hydrogen powered generators might be the answer to meet these heavy loads.
The main barrier to improving Somerville’s sustainability is that the company can only use what’s on offer. But making sustainability a selection criterion should influence vendors to make the right changes.
Somerville now pays attention to hardware vendors’ sustainability practices and uses mostly HP and HPE equipment as they have a long history of promoting sustainability. Almost every piece of hardware they sell is recyclable, with just 1-2% of the materials going to landfill.
Fujitsu works with a partner to handle and separate its waste responsibly, including waste from its customers’ on-site activities. The company has had a policy of sending zero e-waste to landfill since 2009, with items being refurbished where possible and the rest sent for recycling.
Macquarie Data Centres also works with its customers to recycle as much as possible, including the packaging in which new equipment is delivered.
Manufacturers can play a part too. In 2019, Lenovo started shipping pre-assembled racks instead of separately packaged server nodes, chassis and racks, reducing the amount of cardboard packaging per rack by around 48kg.
At the other end of the cycle, Lenovo’s asset recovery services programme securely handles collection, erasure or destruction of storage devices, the sale or donation of refurbished equipment, and the recycling of what remains.
“Customers can be confident that Lenovo will help their business do its part to be environmentally and socially responsible, as well as maximise the recoverable value for all their technology assets,” says Tease.
A surprising source of recyclable materials is old tapes. Perth-based Tape Ark ‘liberates’ old tape-based backups and moves the data into the cloud, explains Guy Holmes, its president and CEO. The company built its virtual tape technology in the cloud, and so it can be turned off when not in active use, saving money and reducing energy consumption.
Tape Ark also reduces the total footprint of its customers’ operations. It recently moved data from 11 Australian hospitals into a single cloud-based repository, reducing power and cooling requirements while making the data more readily available.
One of the issues is that legislation requires some data to be retained for longer than the technology used would otherwise survive. An organisation that’s been in business since the 1980s might have eight different types of tape backups and would have abandoned most of them if it wasn’t for retention requirements. And so, moving the data to the cloud is an evergreen solution, Holmes says.
Tape Ark is now working with a shoe company on a plan to recycle the tape itself as well as its shell, leaving just a few metal components and a small circuit board from each cartridge to be disposed of. Having worked with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Holmes imagines turning old tapes into limited-edition shoes labelled with a QR code that links to a particular performer’s induction video.
Another benefit of Tape Ark’s approach is that it makes old data usable again. Holmes gave the example of the UK Meteorological Office, which has 350PB of data from weather modelling. That data can be combined with sea depth data collected by another organisation to help determine the best locations for offshore wind farms.
“The more data is in the cloud, especially historical data that was collected before the cloud became commonplace, the more opportunities there will be to exploit it, potentially turning that data from a cost to a source of revenue,” Holmes says.
Read more about IT sustainability in APAC
- Enterprises across APAC are planning to reduce their datacentre footprint, relying instead on colocation facilities to improve IT efficiency and connectivity to the growing number of cloud-based services that they have come to rely on.
- Energy savings of nearly 80% can be achieved by running business applications in the cloud rather than on-premise infrastructure, study finds.
- Space DC opens first of two datacentres with reliability and green features to tap Indonesia’s growing demand for datacentres.
- Here are some of the factors to consider while designing a green datacentre.