How to reduce your data centre CO2 emissions

How to reduce your organisation’s carbon footprint and lower your CO2 emissions over the long term, not just for short-term gains, according to a data centre expert.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: IT in Europe: Building a business case for a green data centre

As data centre managers consider ways to reduce the CO2 emissions of a data centre, they often begin by targeting data centre IT equipment and how effectively it is used. By introducing new equipment and virtualisation to boost utilisation rates, IT managers can achieve rapid results in reducing total data centre energy use. But, in key ways, this approach misses the point of carbon emission reduction.

For long-term savings rather than short-term gains, any strategy to reduce carbon emissions has to be well-planned and well-implemented. Such foresight and solid execution, however, involve new approaches not only to the IT equipment in use but also to ancillary equipment. Consider, too, the lifecycle management of equipment to reduce the “embedded” carbon footprint—the total energy use associated with a product’s manufacture, transport and use.

It takes energy to manufacture and transport equipment, and all items have their own carbon footprint before they even arrive at the data centre. For you, the data centre manager, this means considering factors other than equipment as a means of energy consumption. Take a simple server, for example. Each part of a server is manufactured, shipped, assembled, shipped again, further assembled and then shipped through the channel to get to you. The amount of embedded carbon associated with each of these stages can easily be greater than the energy consumed by the final product in a year.

CO2 emissions and lifecycle management strategies
Data centre managers can’t control the entire supply chain, so they can’t address embedded carbon directly. They can, however, ensure that their own practices don’t result in a higher total carbon footprint because of poor management of the “carbon chain.”

So, a full lifecycle management policy is required. Virtualisation allows equipment to be far more easily tiered in its usage, so a server that’s used for the most demanding workloads today can still be used, for example, for file and print services in three years’ time. You can move 1 gigabit (GB) switches to the periphery as 10 GB and faster switches become available. Use high-performance storage for less critical storage—or even for near-line back up storage over time.

It may be more difficult to manage other equipment in the data centre in this way. For example, chiller units tend to be fit for purpose—or just fit for disposal. Once power distribution systems are in place, it is difficult to change them without impacting the rest of the data centre. So, ensure that the greatest flexibility is allowed for when procuring these items in the first place to ensure that they will have as long a life as possible.

Take the same approach with the data centre facility itself. Yes, cloud is all the rage at the moment, but what about two years from now? Will the future be around the scaling out of an infrastructure—that is, just adding more and more servers as required; will it be further convergence; or will private data centres pretty much die out? Unless these questions are addressed and flexibility is built into the data centre facility from the start, you may find yourself with costly problems going forward as you face the need to build different facilities to keep up with broader changes in technologies. A well-designed data centre will allow for power distribution to keep pace, for cooling to be adequate and targeted and for new architectures to be built alongside the old.

Configuring a private data centre to grow and shrink as needed to free up space for other requirements can improve the overall efficiency—and therefore the carbon footprint – of the data centre. A fully engineered data centre, built for efficiency and combined with higher running temperatures and fully targeted cooling can lead to massive carbon footprint reductions as long as you also balance changes with the probability of a future, shared data centre approach. 

Data centre power is the next area to look at for reducing carbon emissions. Facilities owners decide which power supply will be used to generate energy in the data centre. Some may choose to contract directly with a provider of hydro, nuclear, wind or solar power, or through the use of combined heat and power generation local to the facility. Others might sign a contract with a sustainable or low-carbon energy company that ensures that investments are made in long-term sustainable energy generation.

New devices, new strategies
The growth of mobile users and the device types they use, along with the ubiquity of compute devices across the whole organisation, means you many want to consider new approaches, such as server-based computing to provide the main capability of serving the users’ desktops. However, such approaches may have an overall negative impact on an organisation’s carbon emissions, as more power is required in the data centre to support the centralised desktops—at least until existing “fat” devices (such as existing PCs) have been replaced with more energy-efficient, low-powered “thin” ones (thin client devices, tablets, smartphones, etc.).

With all IT apparatus, disposal of the equipment and its impact on carbon emissions needs to be covered as well. In the UK, the WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) legislation means that equipment should be recycled in a controlled manner. In many other countries, however, this may not be the case. Alternative, planned disposal has to be part of the overall equipment lifecycle planning. Wherever possible, provide channels for reusing complete items of equipment to reduce the impact of the embedded carbon. Where reuse is not possible, recycling components (e.g., hard disk drives and memory modules) may be the best bet. But then the embedded carbon of dumping the old fat clients offsets the benefits of replacing the energy inefficiencies of fat clients, and this is where the complexities come about.

Finally, IT should not be seen in isolation when it comes to a company’s energy use. Any pressure from the business to lower the energy usage of IT should be looked at carefully. Creating a strategy for low CO2 emissions should not be an IT-only issue. In many cases, the IT department can help create a far more energy-sustainable organisation, one where small increases in the amount of energy used by IT leads to massive savings elsewhere in the business. By using electronic delivery in the supply chain, for example, a company can replace employee travel with telepresence.

Clive Longbottom is a service director at UK analyst Quocirca Ltd. and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT