The sustainability agenda - how data centre providers are meeting their obligations and driving innovation

clock • 5 min read
"To achieve true sustainability, it's important to look across the entire lifecycle of a facility," says David Watkins of VIRTUS Data Centres
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"To achieve true sustainability, it's important to look across the entire lifecycle of a facility," says David Watkins of VIRTUS Data Centres

The demand for interconnected services has increased exponentially over the last two years, increasing the need for readily available connectivity, 24/7, around the world.

This seismic shift had accelerated the appetite for data services like streaming, online shopping and more - causing a spike in the power the technology industry consumes.

The logical and responsible result is that sustainability sits at the top of the agenda for all organisations, and in particular those businesses that provide the infrastructure for all things digital: the data centre industry. Data centre operators are working to get ahead of the game to be as efficient as possible, to mitigate their environmental impact and prove their sustainability credentials.

There are three main routes to success: optimisation and reconfiguration; tackling the carbon footprint; and end-to-end lifecycle management.

Optimisation and reconfiguration

Many experts agree that the most important thing we can do in the date centre is to look at the technology we're using and work out how we can we run it more efficiently. A good example of optimisation and reconfiguration here at Virtus is the way in which we've changed our cooling processes - harnessing indirect adiabatic and evaporative cooling technology, adding moisture to outdoor air to cool the data centre. Advanced indirect ‘air-to-air' heat exchange techniques ensure the external and internal data centre atmospheres never meet, safeguarding against contamination.

We've successfully harnessed this cooling technology for a number of years, and have been able to reduce our water consumption by between 30 and 40 per cent, simply by reconfiguring the way in which our cooling units operate - ensuring we use free air cooling up to a certain temperature, then adiabatic cooling, and finally mechanical cooling when the temperature reaches a high threshold.

Work like this is making a real impact, and we've led the industry in many sustainability initiatives. However, the hard truth is that we're not going to achieve true sustainability simply by relying on developments in technology and tweaking what we're doing now. Indeed, most data centres have been operating best practice for some time - such as a robust approach to air management.

A more holistic approach is needed that considers sustainability at every point of the data centre lifecycle - from design, to build, to operation and maintenance. Whilst adiabatic cooling is now becoming increasingly common, Virtus has thought about cooling right through the life cycle of the data centre. For example, at the design stage, we sited the data centre in a location where we could access to an underground aqua flow, 200 metres below the facility. Using processed water from the aqua flow means that we're not impacting the local mains water supply to the region.

Reducing the carbon footprint

Racks of servers in a brightly lit data centre

A large part of reducing the carbon footprint of a data centre is looking at the fuel sources we use - and the good news is that there's significant progress being made on this front. The use of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) instead of diesel in our generators has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90 per cent - as well as eliminating sulphur dioxide emissions and reducing harmful nitrogen oxides.

It's also crucial that the industry strives to use the cleanest energy possible. At Virtus, we only ever use truly renewable energy from wind, hydro or solar sources. By doing this, we save around 45 million tonnes of CO2 every year: enough to fill Wembley Stadium five times over. And importantly, we have the ability to prove our credentials in this field, with a REGO (Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin) certificate from the energy generator.

Once again, though, we know that reducing a data centre's carbon footprint requires more than making tweaks at an existing facility. Instead, it starts on the construction site, and requires us to look at how we can reduce the embedded carbon that's endemic when developing a new building. We must commit to using low carbon materials, to streamline the delivery process, and minimise consumption of new resources.

End-to-end lifecycle management

We know that to achieve true sustainability, it's important to look across the entire lifecycle of a facility, and crucially, to ensure that we can prove our credentials at every step. An effective way of doing this is to obtain certifications, providing a third-party verification of your sustainability credentials. For example, BREEAM looks at the lifecycle of a building all the way from concept and design to construction, operation and maintenance.

Another approach to consider, which is particularly pertinent for the large hyperscale organisations, is the adoption of a circular economy. In a circular economy we look to ‘maintain, refurbish, renew and recycle' for a holistic approach to sustainability.

In the ‘maintain' stage we concentrate on getting more life from our equipment - for example, when an asset requires replacing, we assess whether we can use refurbished parts. ‘Refurbish' has the goal of deploying equipment twice - for example, a decommissioned server can be dismantled into separate components, which may then be reused in a newer machine. ‘Reuse' means the parts we no longer require are redistributed on the secondary market. And finally, recycling old equipment must be front of mind for data centre providers, too.

There is evidently plenty of good work being done in the data centre industry to meet our collective sustainability obligations, and there's plenty of innovation happening too. Technological developments in areas like fuel cells are continuing at pace - and while they're not viable right now, if they can perform at scale, they might present a compelling option for green data centre power.

It's important to remember that not all facilities have an equal environmental impact. In fact, large central data centres can operate much more efficiently than a small cluster of data centres, which can be distributed all over the country. But, whatever the differences between facilities and even territories, what's clear is that everyone has a part to play in driving innovation in this area - and we must all work hard to ‘green' a notoriously power-hungry industry.

David Watkins is solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

VIRTUS Data Centres is a sponsor at the upcoming Tech Impact Conference this month, where Computing will explore the relationship between tech and the climate - including case studies about the road to net zero, how to go green in your data centre and supply chain, and how to make small changes with a big impact. For those who are passionate about the planet - and even those who are more wary - there has never been a better time to get involved.

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