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Unpicking the datacentre industry’s complicated relationship with climate change

The energy usage habits of datacentres often see the sector labelled as a contributor to climate change, but the situation is far more nuanced than that, it seems

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Climate change – the challenge for datacentres

Datacentres are without doubt the beating heart of our increasingly digital economy. For proof of that, one only has to look at the havoc and disruption caused when an outage results in a datacentre falling offline – even if it is only for a relatively short amount of time.

Such outages can be caused by operator error, power supply problems and defective hardware, but natural disasters and extreme weather events can also play a part.

And for this reason, there are concerns that datacentre operators and owners are not doing enough to prepare themselves for the havoc climate change may cause to their facilities.

The Uptime Institute claims that many organisations are failing to take preventive steps to protect their datacentre facilities from being disrupted by heatwaves, water shortages, wildfires and floods – all of which are on the rise due to global warming.

In a global poll of 900 datacentre operators and IT professionals, the datacentre think tank found that 90% of respondents do not think their organisation needs a flood-related disaster recovery plan and that 71% are not preparing for severe weather events. Overall, the poll reveals that 45% of respondents are “ignoring the risk” of climate change and, in turn, global warming.

This is despite the fact statistics from Conservation International show the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is the highest it has been for three million years while an estimated 800 million people are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“Datacentres will continue to be at the centre of climate change discussions, not only because of the threats extreme weather poses to mission-critical facilities, but also because datacentres depend a great deal on utilities such as power, water and telecoms,” says Andy Lawrence, executive director of Uptime Institute.

Effects of climate change on datacentres

Lawrence believes the effects of climate change on datacentres are “significant”, but too few operators are taking protective steps to mitigate them, which could have dire consequences for them in the long run.

“As little as a 1°F rise in ambient temperatures can increase cooling loads and significantly reduce energy savings from free cooling. Larger temperature increases can even reduce computing capacity,” he says.

“Recent reports say 3,600 miles of fibre in the coastal [areas of the] US will be underwater in less than 15 years, and changes in climate make previous assumptions about flooding suspect.

Research shows that datacentres currently use 200TWh of data annually, making up 1% of the world’s electricity demand

“Models project that the high-water marks of 100-year storms are now typical of 30-year storms,” says Lawrence. “Increased flooding can affect fuel deliveries and staffing, and even reach IT equipment in some cases.”

Because of the variety and severity of potential threats, Lawrence advises datacentre owners and operators to “conduct regular resiliency reviews” and to “confer with public and utility authorities to understand how these agencies are preparing for severe weather events”.

But as well as being at risk of the effects of climate change, there is no shying away from the fact that the resource consumption habits of datacentres could be contributing to its onset too.

Research shows that datacentres currently use 200TWh (terawatt hours) of data annually, making up 1% of the world’s electricity demand. As the connected ecosystem rapidly expands, power consumption will grow exponentially. In fact, a study by Swedish researcher Anders Andrae predicts datacentres will be responsible for 33% of global ICT electricity use by 2025.

Underlying technology

John Hammond, a meteorologist at the digital weather service, points out that the underlying technology used by datacentres could be causing many of these challenges.

“Despite the advances in water cooling, many datacentres still rely heavily on energy-hungry air-conditioning units, which have the dubious honour of being both a way to mitigate the impact of global warming, and a major contributor to it,” he tells Computer Weekly.

Siting datacentres in very cold regions of the world is one way of reducing the need for air-conditioning, he concedes, but it is far from a total solution.

“That ‘free’ cooling from the ambient air is often anything but,” he says. “Quite apart from the energy and cost of building the infrastructure needed to supply these remote locations, putting large buildings on areas that were once covered by snow reduces the amount of solar energy the polar regions are able to reflect back into space, thereby increasing the pace of climate change.

“The reality is that many datacentre cooling systems, which will need to be used more intensively as global temperatures rise, still work like fridges. They are heat pumps in reverse, consuming electricity to cool the immediate area and radiating heat out into the atmosphere. So there must be no let-up in the drive to make them less power-hungry and more efficient.”

Dan Johnson, director of global business continuity and disaster recovery at managed services provider Ensono, says there is mounting proof of the impact climate change is having on the world and its weather that operators continue to ignore.   

“In certain areas of the world, what perhaps used to be a once-in-a-lifetime event – whether a flood, or a hurricane, or both – now happens once every few years, and sometimes every year,” he says. “Based on projections from research agencies across the globe, the situation could get significantly worse. Of course, in a very small way, datacentres themselves are contributing to the climate crisis, since much of the energy they currently consume comes from non-renewable sources.”

Increased efficiency

That said, Johnson notes that datacentres have become far more efficient over the years.

“The impact is not nearly what it once was, and efficiency continues to improve. As countries make the shift towards renewable [power sources], datacentre operations will become even greener.

“In the US, most datacentres have the building strength to cope with earthquakes in areas where these happen, but flooding and hurricanes aren’t always considered,” he says.

“Maintenance, staffing and fuel will all be affected during floods, hurricanes and other freak weather incidents. Even if the datacentre itself is not directly hit, employees and transport usually are.”

To protect its datacentres from weather threats, Johnson says Ensono’s systems operate with multiple layers of redundancy.

“There is fuel storage onsite for our backup generators and Ensono has additional fuel deliveries in reserve to provide continuous operation during any public utility power cut. Multiple backup diesel generators are used. These have been designed to endure the rain and wind that accompanies severe storms.”

Read more about datacentres and climate change

The company also conducts tests of its most critical applications twice a year to ensure all day-to-day processes can continue if one of its datacentres is affected by disaster.

“We have a rigorous disaster recovery testing programme in place for the clients we support to ensure they can continue operating should one of our datacentres become impacted by a disaster,” he says.

To safeguard vital IT assets now and in the future, it is clear that global warming is an issue organisations need to take seriously. Many datacentre operators are leveraging renewable energy sources to combat the threats posed by climate change, with one example being Digital Realty.

Aaron Binkley, director of sustainability at Digital Realty, says: “Since 2016, we have signed 288MW of new renewable energy contracts – 104 of which were signed in 2018 alone – demonstrating the issue’s rising importance within the organisation. And our efforts are starting to pay off.

“The power supply we currently use to power our EMEA and US colocation businesses is sourced from 100% renewable energy,” he says.

Industry-wide shift

While Digital Realty is making great strides to improve the sustainability of its datacentres, Binkley says there has been an industry-wide shift on the topic of climate change in recent times.

“In fact, companies controlling many of the largest datacentre portfolios in the world are also among the largest renewable energy purchasers. BNEF data shows that more than 120 corporate buyers signed clean energy contracts in 2018 alone, totalling 13.4GW,” he says.

“While we will always strive to provide our customers with outstanding service, we fully recognise and take responsibility for the role we must play in supporting solutions that reduce the impact datacentres have on the environment”
Aaron Binkley, Digital Realty

“Ultimately, we must not shy away from climate change with its effects becoming increasingly more apparent. Extreme weather events, often spearheaded by climate change, threaten two of the very fundamental components of datacentre design and operations: resilience and uptime.

“And while we will always strive to provide our customers with outstanding service, we fully recognise and take responsibility for the role we must play in supporting solutions that reduce the impact datacentres have on the environment.”

As well as ensuring the effects of climate change are on the radar of datacentre operators, Mark Anderson, senior director of global solutions enablement for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at colocation giant Equinix, says it is important that society as a whole also takes the threat it poses seriously.

“Not only are there concerns around how climate change will affect companies’ infrastructure, but there is also a need for businesses to reduce their impact on the environment now,” he tells Computer Weekly.

“As climate change unfolds, the risk of rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions heightens – so it is important for the datacentre industry to be prepared at all times.”

Coping with natural disasters

From a structural perspective, Anderson claims Equinix’s facilities are equipped to cope with natural disasters.

“All of our datacentres meet or exceed local structural building requirements for withstanding movements caused by an earthquake,” he says. “And Equinix datacentres even survived Hurricane Sandy – while all other local centres went down during the storm.”

But as well as preparing for extreme weather events, the datacentre industry should also be proactively implementing measures to avoid the risk of increased climate change. “There is still a long way to go when it comes to tackling sustainability issues – but many projects are underway to drive an accelerated improvement,” says Anderson.

“There is a wide range of green initiatives that industry players can look at, including aquifer systems to draw from naturally cold wells to cool datacentre halls, installing solar panels to generate green energy, implementing rainwater collection tanks for further cooling aids, partnering only with green power providers, and many other such programmes.

“Companies are aware that continuing to build robust facilities that look to tackle the challenges of today, while also preparing for the future, is critical to the long-term success of the datacentre industry and needs to remain our focus in the months and years to come.”

Supporting others’ work on climate change

The datacentre industry is also playing a central role in supporting the work of others tasked with tackling climate change.

“From calculating GPS mapping to encourage shorter journeys, to video communications across countries removing the need for excessive airline travel, datacentres power it all,” says Anderson.

“Therefore, it is important to ask the question, just how much of a positive impact are datacentres having by reducing energy usage in other sectors?”

Global warming is one of the most serious challenges to humanity today, and it is no secret that it’s affecting a range of industries. The datacentre market is no different.

As extreme weather events continue to occur, there will be increased pressure on organisations to invest in more eco alternatives to not only protect themselves against these threats, but contribute towards creating a greener world.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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