Historically, the sustainability performance of IT equipment infrastructure has remained beyond the purview of the sustainability strategy.
Even in enterprises with recognised sustainability credentials, very few environmental and sustainability reports speak to the utilisation of and work delivered per unit of energy consumed by the IT infrastructure. Furthermore, IT operations outsourced to colocation and cloud datacentres are considered by many IT managers to be “off-the-books” for sustainability accounting.
This situation is rapidly changing as investors, legislators, regulators, and customers increasingly focus on energy consumption, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and operational efficiency of the IT infrastructure.
Financial-based climate disclosure requirements - such as the European Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and other Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) based regulations mandate public reporting of energy consumption, GHG emissions, and strategies and goals for their reduction across owned, colocated and cloud IT operations.
The European Energy Efficiency Directive requires datacentre operators to establish an energy management system (ISO 50001 or equivalent) that improves energy performance as measured by work delivered per unit of energy consumed. Operators must publish an energy performance improvement plan that specifies improvement projects and reports on their progress and results.
IT managers will need to establish or revitalise their sustainability strategy and increase their engagement with their sustainability staff in 2024, as continual improvement of IT operations will be an integral part of these public reports and improvement plans. Fortunately, there is a set of strategies and actions available to IT managers to improve their business and sustainability performance.
- Establish data monitoring and collection and IT equipment inventory systems to enable the calculation of IT equipment work per energy metrics.
- Increase the average utilisation of the IT equipment capacity and consolidate workloads when IT equipment is refreshed.
- Enable power management functions on IT equipment.
- Take responsibility for and control of IT operations in colocation and cloud facilities.
- Engage with the energy management/procurement team and IT service providers to increase carbon-free energy (CFE) consumption in IT operations.
IT managers should lay out or broaden their sustainability strategy in 2024, recognising that achieving each of the strategy elements identified above will require continual, incremental improvements over time.
The strategy will need regular updates to incorporate new IT equipment technologies and software and artificial intelligence (AI) tools. Focusing on these strategy elements will enable IT managers to deliver environmental, energy, and business performance improvements that can decrease expenditures and enhance revenues.
Capture and analyse IT equipment inventory and operational data
The public perception of datacentres darkened in 2023, with growing concerns that these facilities are inefficient energy and resource hogs that will eventually overwhelm available resources. While there is no question that datacentre operations are expanding rapidly, there is very little reliable data on the actual energy consumption and efficiency of IT equipment operations. IT managers need to begin the work necessary to generate and report a work delivered per unit of energy consumed metric.
IT managers are tracking the critical IT equipment inventory, power demand, and capacity utilisation data to monitor the reliability and resiliency of their operations, but only one-third are collecting and aggregating sufficiently granular data to enable the calculation of a work per energy performance metric.
There is a broad ecosystem of software tools, datacentre infrastructure management (DCIM), IT infrastructure management (ITIM), IT operations management (ITOM), and data aggregation software available to craft a comprehensive performance management system. However, deployment will require significant staff resources and one to two years of time.
IT managers need to initiate projects and set a reasonable schedule to implement a data management system capable of calculating reliable work per energy data. This need is particularly urgent in the EU but will become necessary in other jurisdictions over the next five years.
Most importantly, reporting a work per energy metric and energy consumption data will enable managers to communicate the operational improvements and their IT infrastructure's real impact.
Increase IT equipment utilisation and workload consolidation
The work capacity of much of the IT infrastructure is wasted either by design or laziness. The Uptime Institute 2023 IT and Power efficiency survey found that only 46% of responding IT operators tracked the capacity utilisation of their IT equipment and set utilisation objectives.
Conversations with enterprise operators reveal that many do not consolidate applications when they refresh their IT equipment and are hesitant to deploy power-aware workload management tools out of concern for impacting the reliability of their IT operations.
IT managers must guide their organisations to intelligently utilise their available equipment capacity, using software tools to measure, manage, and maximise utilisation within reliability constraints.
All organizations should set equipment utilisation goals and build multi-year efficiency project plans to improve IT infrastructure energy performance. Data available from IT equipment manufacturers indicate that workloads on two to eight old servers can be migrated to one new server when deploying n+1 (e.g., Intel or AMD CPU generation 3 to 4) or n+2 (e.g., Intel or AMD CPU generation 2 to 4) technology. Similar improvements can be achieved in storage and network equipment.
Consolidating CPU workload and storage and network operations delivers a defined workload on three-quarters to one-half of the equipment. Consolidation significantly reduces capital and operating costs and space, energy, and water use while increasing the work delivered per unit of energy consumed.
Deploy power management functions on servers
IT equipment, particularly servers, are designed with power management capabilities that match equipment power and workload demand, reducing overall energy consumption by up to 10%. These functions are incompatible with all workload types as they increase response time as the CPU switches from one operating state to another or moves into lower power modes when workload is absent.
The response lags may not be appropriate for high-performance compute operations but within the reliability requirements of web serving or enterprise/office applications.
The Uptime Institute 2023 IT and Power efficiency survey found that 54% of IT managers surveyed have an internal policy to enable power management functions, with over half enabling these functions on more than half of their server fleet.
These managers have successfully set internal processes and criteria to govern the enablement of power management functions. In many cases, workloads can be tested for power management compatibility during server testing to verify that performance requirements are met.
IT managers should establish criteria for the controlled deployment of these functions. In the first year, a few projects should be executed for applications/systems where power management is clearly compatible with reliability and response time requirements.
The initial project work enables the organisation to develop experience with power management functions. As experience is gained, more complicated projects can be undertaken, broadening the deployment to further improve energy performance while maintaining workload performance and reliability commitments.
Control IT operations in colocation and cloud datacentres
The Uptime Institute 2022 Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change survey found that only one-quarter to one-third of IT operators tracked operations' energy use and GHG emissions in colocation and cloud datacentres.
The survey results suggest that the energy performance of these operations is not closely tracked and that goals are not established to improve energy performance. Conversations with IT operations support the survey findings, with many IT operators and service providers disavowing responsibility for IT performance. While this is particularly true for colocation operations, it is also true for bare metal and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) cloud operations, where IT operators control energy performance through their BIOS, operating system, and application settings.
IT operators should exercise control of these operations and set goals to improve energy performance. Again, many software tools are available to actively manage these operations to optimise energy performance. Management and optimisation of the utilisation of IT assets in colocation and cloud datacentres can yield operational improvements and cost reductions equivalent to those achieved in owned datacentres.
Increase the consumption of carbon-free energy
IT managers should establish plans to reduce the carbon intensity of their energy consumption in parallel with their efforts to improve their energy performance.
Typically, these plans are executed by the internal energy management team or the colocation and cloud service providers. They are more likely to be successful when the IT operations team participates in developing the carbon-free energy procurement strategy and supports and tracks its implementation.
Like strategies to improve energy performance, reducing the carbon intensity of the energy supply requires incremental improvements and an extended implementation timeline. Unlike energy efficiency projects, procurement of carbon-free energy will likely have a cost premium of three percent or more. However, having and making progress on a plan to reduce operational GHG emissions enhances an enterprise’s sustainability credentials and facilitates or enables revenue from the increasing number of customers setting their own sustainability objectives.
In conclusion, an effective sustainability strategy delivers business and environmental improvements while maintaining or enhancing reliability, resiliency, and operational performance. With the increased public and regulatory attention to the environmental performance of datacentres, IT managers need to integrate their sustainability strategy into their business plans and make the necessary investments to improve the work delivered per unit of energy consumed metric.
IT managers should start or reinvigorate their sustainability strategies in 2024, working within their organisation and with internal colleagues and critical external suppliers to improve performance through energy efficiency improvements in the IT equipment infrastructure and reductions in the carbon intensity of the energy supply. Projects need to address IT operations in owned, colocation, and cloud facilities.
Read more from the Think Tank
- The conversation around IT sustainability stepped up a gear in 2023, but has it been another year of all talk and no action?
- There is an ever-growing list of rules and regulations for enterprises to get their heads around when it comes to sustainability, but what can they do to keep on top of things?
Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT
TechUK warns datacentre operators government could get powers to enforce heat reuse
The power of partners in tackling the environmental challenges of data storage
Datacentres’ energy-efficiency investment priorities in the race to net zero
IT Sustainability Think Tank: Green IT regulations and the datacentre