Energy efficiency in the data centre is increasingly seen as ‘a thing’ but the more prosaic truth is that actual change has yet to spread at scale, writes Morten Mjels at ASUS.
- There is plenty of innovation in data centres but, as of right now, the IT sector is still developing the expertise to roll out energy-efficiency technologies on a broad scale.
- The sector is facing several challenges in improving energy efficiency in data centres in the next few years.
- If sustainable processes are not implemented voluntarily, legislation and regulation will impose change.
Energy efficiency in the data centre is increasingly seen as ‘a thing’. But the more prosaic truth is that actual change has yet to accelerate to the point at which it’s keeping up with expectations – and, increasingly, deadlines. There are a multitude of reasons, of course. But here are four significant challenges that the information and communications technologies (ICT) sector faces in improving energy efficiency in data centres in the next few years.
A dearth of motivation
In Europe, data centres are currently responsible for 3.5% of the continent’s electricity usage. In some economies, the proportion is much higher: data centres in Ireland consumed 14% of the country’s electricity in 2021, with predictions that this proportion could rise to a quarter by 2030. This sort of consumption inevitably attracts the attention of governments and regulators – and, indeed, the Irish government has already proposed tighter regulations for new developments.
More broadly, the European Commission declared in its February 2020 policy that: “…the ICT sector also needs to undergo [a] green transformation. The environmental footprint of the sector is significant, estimated at 5-9% of the world’s total electricity use and more than 2% of all emissions. Data centres and telecommunications will need to become more energy efficient, reuse waste energy, and use more renewable energy sources. They can and should become climate neutral by 2030.”
But Ireland is Ireland and the UK is not under the purview of the European Commission. The UK’s data centres are not presently subject to the same scrutiny or targets: despite the 2050 ‘Net Zero’ target date there are no short or medium-term targets. Purely from a regulatory and legislative point of view, there appears to be insufficient incentive to change proactively as things stand.
Low levels of expertise in new technologies
There is plenty of innovation in data centres: ever-improving performance and power ratios for servers, immersion cooling of servers, the capture of waste heat, the putting to good use that recaptured heat via heat pumps and exchangers… But, as of right now, the IT sector is still developing the expertise to roll out energy-efficiency technologies on a broad scale; bluntly, the expertise doesn’t exist in sufficient volumes yet.
I also suspect that many data centre managers are wary of these innovations. And there are certainly new considerations to take into account. For example, you can’t just pull an immersion-cooled server out of its pod; a specific crane is needed because these things are filled with liquid and are heavy. Transition planning is required.
It’s also the case that, as of now, only a few vendors have developed immersion-cooled servers. More vendors will produce them – but only when they’re being asked for the tech routinely. Right now, many server buyers don’t feel they need these innovations, keeping in check the demand for and the development of skills and expertise.
There is something of a vicious circle at work – but it will inevitably be broken. The most likely cause is the introduction of legislation and regulation, or mandatory targets. At this point I foresee something of a stampede, because server customers and data centre operators will have no other option if they are to meet the targets that must come.
An entire charging model will need to be revised for a new era
For data centre operators, improving energy efficiency in the data centre will put pressure on their existing business model.
Currently, when you buying services from a data centre, there are certain standard things for which you will be charged. First, space. Perhaps it’s rack space: are you using a single rack, or maybe a whole rack, or two or three? There’s energy usage, which your data centre will calculate: the more power your servers use, the more expensive they are to run, and the more they charge.
Data centres also charge according to how much heat your servers generate; they can work that out too. And, of course, there’s the network: charges will depend on how fast the networking need to be, perhaps what kind of firewall, and so on.
Because all data centre costs are currently passed on to customers, there is no incentive to become more space or energy efficient; doing so may reduce their revenue significantly. To facilitate change, data centre operators will need to find new, viable, credible, sustainable (no pun intended) metrics on which to base their fees.
The current tender process is out of date
As things stand, data centre requests for proposal (RFPs), whether for a business or for a data centre operator, tend not to focus on energy efficiency; or, if they do, it’s usually included under total cost of ownership. Instead, RFPs tend to delve into the actual power requirements, the usual teraflops of processing power, how much storage is required, total cost of ownership, and so on.
The reason for this is that RFPs are often written by procurement people – and, as things stand, energy efficiency is not a metric that that procurement people routinely measure. TCO is a very real thing (into which elements such as purchase price, service levels, support and warranty all fit). All parties know that no one is going to win a tender if they’re 20% out compared to the competition price.
Yes: price will always matter. But – while acknowledging that some organisations are already doing this – the tender process needs to change. Different metrics, around energy efficiency, need to be specified, and met, as a matter of course. If it doesn’t become widespread voluntarily, enforcing this may come back to legislation and regulation again.
The opinions of guest authors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of SG Voice.