Beyond the greenwashing – getting the green light for data centres

Digital infrastructure may be popping up like weeds (see Data centre market continues to boom), but not everyone is celebrating.  Amsterdam, for example, announced a pause on new data centre projects in July 2019. As a major data centre hub, the sector has had a significant impact on demand for both energy and land in the city. The region decided that it needed a pause to formulate policies before resuming business-as-usual in mid 2020.
This illustrates why the impact of digital infrastructure is not a black and white issue. It brings jobs and opportunities, and it can have a positive impact on the environment. For example, it can substitute for physical travel and support homeworking (reducing pollution and damage from commutes). (see Flexible working still a huge opportunity for B2B telcos.) However, this environmental helpfulness is not free. The sector uses significant amounts of electricity to power networks and cool servers. As a result of the exponential growth in demand for data, green data centres have returned to the top of the industry’s agenda, as activism and a broadening political narrative around environmental impact bubbles away in the background.
This topic was extensively discussed at this week’s DCD London, where panellists explored energy consumption in the sector and sustainability. Three major gaps emerged:

  • the gulf between the green electricity have’s (eg Norway which has a surplus of hydro power) and the have nots
  • the big black void of reliable information about just how much energy is being used
  • the perception gap of younger people about the energy impact of their lifestyles.

Fear of activism is rife, with organisations not wishing to alienate either customers or employees. Think it’s exaggerated? Well just this week, Google, Amazon and Microsoft were publicly challenged by their own employees to green up. But while companies are seeking to become more sustainable and minimise their environmental impact (it’s a rare large enterprise that doesn’t have a slide on carbon footprint these days), Generation Z seems blissfully oblivious as to how its own behaviour is contributing to the problem.
Gen Z may be busy blocking roads to protest against environmental damage, but they are organising using their mobile phones and social media. Few have stopped to consider how much power they’re consuming beyond searching for a free socket to top up their phones. But as my Gen X mother frequently points out, virtually no-one in her generation used a mobile phone before they were 30; there was no internet or any streaming media. The individual consumption of power was more modest.
Younger people may not wish to return to the Dark (pre-internet) Ages, but they should be educated as to how their mobile-first lifestyle is contributing to environmental challenges. The average 20 year old’s concern about streaming media is how much data they’re using; not how much energy. They are unaware that streaming media over mobile uses far more electricity than streaming it over fixed line infrastructure. They don’t huddle round a screen with their family – like Generation X were brought up doing – but want multiscreen streaming, which inevitably multiplies energy usage. In short, they protest about environmental damage without doing the (energy) maths.
Assessing environmental impact isn’t straightforward, however, because the available data is notoriously unreliable. Data centres alone are thought to use between 2-3% of the world’s electricity; but when you factor in other digital infrastructure providers (such as telecoms) the figure is far higher. Dave Johnson of Schneider Electric estimates the sector uses up more than 5%. Others think this is still a woeful underestimate. Mike Hazas of Lancaster University says it’s nearer 10% when you add together the telecoms infrastructure and the Cloud. Both agree that hidden usage means it’s probably far higher than anyone suspects.
Shockingly, the Uptime Institute says that Bitcoin alone uses as much energy as Austria or 20 million UK homes.
The UK has better data than many countries. We know that commercial data centres use just short of 3TWh (0.3% of total UK consumption), but this figure doesn’t include all the private enterprise and public sector server rooms, which would take us far closer to the 2% guesstimate of data centre usage. It also doesn’t include the ‘borrowed’ infrastructure footprint, where our users access data in The Netherlands from the UK via connectivity provided by the telecoms industry.
We do know that BT alone uses around 1% of UK electricity, a figure that is rising even though the company has adopted energy saving practices and has shifted to green energy.
But since we don’t want to go back to the Dark Ages, what can we do other than share screens, educate users and use fixed line infrastructure for streaming? For B2B service providers the impact of not progressively becoming better at energy usage is not simply alienating potential customers and employees, but also not being able to sell to enterprise customers that have their own environmental targets to meet.
Tip that on its head and it means that if you invest in green tech to reduce your energy usage and carbon footprint, then this is initially a differentiator before quickly becoming table stakes in order to do business.
Part of the answer to this problem is to become more energy conscious and adopt the mindset we have at home in the workplace. That means switching off lighting when not in use, and not having servers idling unnecessarily. When McKinsey & Company looked at energy use in 70 large data centres they found that 88-94% of energy used was simply to keep servers idling in case of a sudden increase in demand. Google has led the way here, reducing its energy consumption by 50% since 2014 by managing energy consumption better – largely by adopting advanced temperature management practices and using software to manage its servers.
According to Infomatrix‘s head of presales, Dr Sami Gharres, zombie VMs are a particular pressing issue in virtualised environments. These are VMs that were used in projects that no longer exist or VMs that were provisioned for projects that never materialised. Not only do they hog resources, but they also consume significant amounts of power needlessly. The sheer scale of this problem was highlighted in a recent research paper by Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance which revealed that 30% of servers on average are comatose.
“Another issue affecting virtualised environments is unbalanced loads on different physical servers,” says Gharres. “The amount of heat produced by a CPU compared to the processing load of the CPU is not a linear relationship. In essence, the higher the preceding load, the hotter the CPU becomes. The hotter the CPU, the less efficient it becomes, so a CPU running at 98% will consume more energy and generate more heat than two equivalent CPUs running at 54% load. This is why data centre operators can reduce their power consumption and cooling loads simply by carefully spreading VMs across servers so that the hardware in kept under the optimum load”.
Gharres says that hunting zombie VMs and continuously optimising VM spread is a time- consuming and highly specialised task that is only partly addressed by hardware and software providers who are typically more concerned about performance then green credentials. As Google has found, optimising data centres results in significant savings – both in carbon and cold hard cash. Infomatrix says its software reduces energy consumption in a typical data centre by 25% simply by addressing these type of issues. Whether you see that as saved money or an environmental benefit, using existing resources more judiciously is a win-win for everyone.

Morgan Lewis
Morgan Lewis


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