The barriers to sustainability in the data centre industry, and how to overcome them

by Jon Lucas, Co-Director, Hyve Managed Hosting

The demand for data centre services is showing no signs of slowing down, and the recent predominance of remote working has only helped shine a light on how cloud-based solutions are essential components to business continuity. However, ongoing concerns over the effects of climate change are also forcing the data centre industry to turn greater attention towards its growing impact on the environment. 

The sustainability gap in the industry is a well-known problem. Seventeen per cent of the total carbon footprint caused by technology is due to data centres, which in turn is responsible for one percent of all electricity consumed worldwide. And, as demand increases, this number is only set to grow. 

Data centres need temperature-controlled environments with cooling systems in place to avoid IT equipment overheating and to remain functional. Whilst not known for being kind on the environment, a lot is being done to minimise the impact of energy consumption in data centres. There are many providers committed to energy saving, meeting green credentials and running carbon offsetting initiatives, with several aiming to become carbon neutral.

As part of one of the most innovative fields, tech companies should be using their creativity to come up with ways to reduce their impact on the environment. Imagine efficient evaporative cooling solutions, smart temperature and lighting controls, or custom-built servers that consume as little energy as possible. 

One of the main issues when it comes to sustainability in the data centre world, however, is the lack of industry regulations to guide companies into more environmentally-friendly operations. According to BREEAM’s latest Data Centre Survey, most of the standards and practices currently in place address the availability and design implications of the services, and are not associated with more sustainability-focused practices. 

The research has also pointed out concerns from data centre providers over non-sector legislators imposing unsuitable standards, in case no industry body takes action to help drive best practices. This highlights the urgent need for an industry-wide network to appoint standards that adequately touch the issue of environmental impact, as well as stricter governance on claims of efficiency. 

Data centres and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should start working together to establish a body of educational materials that could be used collaboratively to raise awareness over environmental impact. By educating data centre users on how to use resources more effectively and working more closely together with server and software developers, the industry is one step closer to greener operations. In fact, the survey suggests that better education and collaboration within the industry are considered the main drivers for filling the sustainability gap, and education and regulation are viewed as the ways to facilitate this change. 

In the meantime, companies can individually take steps towards sustainable practices. Optimising and upgrading technology equipment to improve its efficiency and operating temperature might be a good starting point. Google, for instance, is now using artificial intelligence software to assess their cooling systems and data centres efficiency. The technology identifies issues in the systems and fixes them in real-time. As this happens, the AI algorithm learns and evolves to guarantee more productivity.

Exploring renewable energy such as wind, hydro or solar, to power data centre facilities might also be a smart solution. This is interesting not only from an environmental perspective, but also with respect to wider opportunities. BREEAM’s research identified an increased potential for the development of data centre facilities alongside renewable energy facilities, as it provides low cost and local renewable energy benefiting both the data centre operator and generator. 

Even smaller actions such as having less single-use plastic in the office, or supporting local governments to plant trees, are also ways in which tech companies and businesses can navigate to help reduce their carbon footprint and make a difference.  

Delivering sustainability in the data centre industry is a challenge that we need to meet head-on. It’s not something that should be approached half-heartedly or just pay lip service to. To enforce real change, all parties need to work together to make progress towards achieving better results. This requires more openness and transparency not only amongst operators, but also for customers and end-users as well. 

Everyone – businesses and individuals alike – should be reviewing their carbon footprint and thinking of ways that they can reduce it. Opting to work alongside like-minded partners is also a great way to achieve this goal collaboratively.

It is time for tech companies to lead by example and pledge their commitment to a better future. This requires widespread awareness of the industry’s environmental impact and carbon footprint. Better education and regulation will also be necessary for facilitating a change for good. Of course, there’s still a long way to go, but by taking steps like the ones mentioned above, either large or small, we are already one step closer to filling the sustainability gap and living in a greener world. 

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