Firms must measure overall environmental impact of datacentres

IT must move beyond just measuring a datacentre’s power consumption to assessing its overall environmental impact to make it truly sustainable

IT must move beyond just measuring a datacentre’s energy efficiency and power consumption to assessing its overall environmental impact to make meaningful changes and ensure IT facilities are truly sustainable.

As businesses come under increasing pressure from regulators and government bodies to determine their total carbon footprint, they must shift away from assessing a single criterion to a global assessment, according to the industry body The Green Grid.

But current datacentre-efficiency methodology is restricted to the energy use alone. 

“Yes, reducing PUE [power usage effectiveness] and using renewable energy will have a significant positive impact on how you conduct your business,” said Christophe Garnier, The Green Grid’s EMEA Technical Work Group member. 

“But if you want a fair and honest assessment of exactly what impact your facilities are having on the environment, then you must assess the impact of all elements and consider the trade-offs,” he said.

For instance, search engine giant Google recently announced that it has signed a contract to use 48MW of wind energy to power its Oklahoma datacentre, boasting green credentials.

But while calculating its “greenness”, it must also assess where the energy is coming from and what the energy would have been used to power otherwise, according to experts. If it is a case of Google using energy initially meant for households, then it is just shifting “bad energy” to households around the area.

“Google cannot ignore the fact that it has covered huge fields with windmills for its own use, and will have to consider that aspect while measuring its efficiency,” said Garnier.  

But measuring the overall impact is not easy.

Read more about energy efficiency in datacentres

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  • Global census shows datacentre power demand grew 63% in 2012

Complexities of measuring environmental impact

In addition, the lack of standardisation and the diverse range of approaches to assessments mean that many organisations struggle to have a clear idea of exactly what their assessments should include.

“As demand for environmental impact data has grown, industry organisations and regulatory bodies have developed a range of assessment methods,” said Garnier.

But each of these focuses on different specific environmental factors, lifecycle stages or products, making the landscape complex.

This complexity makes organisations look to reduce their results to a single measurement, and thereby lose the detail and clarity necessary to meaningfully analyse total environmental impact and make effective changes, he said.

Green Grid framework for measuring datacentre efficiency

Despite the coordinated efforts of standardisation bodies across Europe, there is not yet a generally accepted universal definition of what a datacentre is.

“Each study must define its own boundaries, and it can be difficult to compare results across studies of different datacentres using different methodologies,” Garnier said.

It can be difficult to compare results across studies of different datacentres using different methodologies

Christophe Garnier, The Green Grid

To remove some of the uncertainty around it, the Green Grid has launched a framework that organisations can use to identify all the key elements of their datacentres and measure the impact on the environment.

The framework will continue to evolve and improve, incorporating real-world case studies and collaboration with the organisations developing assessments to eventually arrive at common approved methods.

“This is a first step towards establishing a consistent set of product category rules for datacentres that can be used to complement any given methodology,” Garnier said.

“Standardisation might fully crystalise in a few years’ time, and that’s when the overall environmental assessment of a datacentre’s impact is likely to become a reality," said Andre Rouyer, EMEA chair of the Green Grid.

Image: Thinkstock

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