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Research: Continuous upgrades to datacentre virtualisation setups key to curbing carbon emissions

A VMware-commissioned report by Aurora Energy Research highlights environmental benefits that can be attained by operators taking steps to continually improve their datacentre virtualisation setups

Ramping up the use of virtualisation technologies within European datacentres could lead to a 55% reduction in carbon emissions by 2040, whereas if current deployment levels were to remain as they are, emissions would increase by more than 250% over the next 20 years.

That is according to a report compiled by market watcher Aurora Energy Research, looking into how the growing demand for cloud and online services could impact the electricity consumption and carbon emissions of datacentres across Europe.

As part of this work, commissioned by VMware, the report’s authors developed a Zero Progress scenario whereby predictions were made about how the emissions generated by computing would be affected if the adoption and penetration levels of virtualisation software remained “stagnant” through to the year 2040.

Alongside this, it developed a Continual Improvement scenario that looked at how the level of emissions would be affected over this same time period assuming “reasonable” adoption and deployment of these same technologies.

“Our analysis suggests European computing emissions would grow 250% over the next 20 years in a Zero Progress scenario, but continued improvements in virtualisation technology and its penetration, underlying the Continual Improvement scenario, can enable cumulative energy efficiency-sourced CO2 reduction of 454 million tonnes by 2040, a 55% reduction compared to the baseline,” the report stated.

“While a Zero Progress scenario is improbable, this scenario highlights the importance of continued innovation in computing and its impact on carbon emissions. Consequently, policy initiatives that stifle a continuation of the pace of innovation seen historically in the sector can have a direct impact on emissions.”

The timing of the report is important, the authors claim, given its publication comes at a time when enterprises across Europe are in the midst of digital transformation projects that may see them increase their use of compute-intensive technologies, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and blockchain.

At the same time, many organisations have had to step-up their use of cloud services since the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic to enable remote working.

Expanding on this point, the report claims the pandemic has led to “tremendous decreases” in the amount of carbon generated by commuting, but the “overnight” adoption of remote working and online learning, for example, has seen the amount of energy consumed by datacentres rise.

“This increasing reliance on digital technologies such as mobile, edge and private/public cloud computing has further accelerated the enormous energy consumption by datacentres – and, therefore, the urgency to act to decarbonise,” the report added.

In recent months, various major players within the European colocation and hyperscale cloud space have gone public with their plans to curb their carbon emissions after the European Commission called for the datacentre sector to become climate-neutral by 2030.

In an acknowledgement to this, the report states that business leaders and policy makers have taken steps to ensure the pandemic has not caused them to lose sight of their “aggressive sustainability and carbon emissions goals to help mitigate climate change”.

Even so, the modelling and predictions set out in the report highlight why it is important to ensure the sector is doing all it can to make sure its growth does not come at the expense of the environment.

Aside from increasing the deployment of virtualisation technologies within public cloud and on-premise datacentres, the report also recommends that operators need to increase the number of renewably powered datacentres they run.

Furthermore, it makes the case for enterprises and cloud operators to consider shifting their computing demands to datacentres where there is an abundance of lower carbon-emitting, renewable power sources.

“Datacentres can help integrate renewables into the grid by utilising their backup, emergency battery story to help balance supply and demand on the grid; optimising the cooling of IT infrastructure to provide flexibility to the grid; and engaging in demand response by reducing datacentre power consumption to better match the current local supply of renewables,” the report added.

Ana Barillas, head of Iberia at Aurora Energy Research, said the report serves to highlight the positive impact that investing in continuous upgrades to datacentres can have on their environmental friendliness.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has made our reliance on the cloud abundantly clear. The demand for computing across Europe is only expected to grow over the next 20 years, and how we deal with its impacts on CO2 emissions will become increasingly important,” said Barillas.

“The continuing improvement and adoption of virtualisation technologies can enable a 40% increase in electricity consumption from European IT over the next two decades without a corresponding impact on emissions.”

Luigi Freguia, senior vice-president and general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at VMware, added: “This report from Aurora Energy Research demonstrates that increased deployment of, and continued improvements in virtualisation technology, allows for much more computation with less energy, and has the opportunity to reduce potential future European computing emissions 55% by 2040.”

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