We’ve heard many technology firms proclaim their commitment to sustainability, and there’s no doubt that they truly care. Whether announcing commitments to using renewable power supplies, cutting water consumption, reducing the use of cooling refrigerants, or establishing refurbishment and recycling programs, their efforts matter. There’s no question that IT companies are trying to make IT a more sustainable industry.
The reality on the ground is that IT continues to consume resources, consumption is accelerating, and we, collectively in the IT industry, can do more to make IT sustainable. As leaders in the industry, making IT more sustainable is our operating philosophy, and we believe that it can and should be more sustainable.
But any IT organization, if asked, admits that they’re facing substantial obstacles toward making IT more sustainable:
- Electricity demand: Though energy consumption per device has been leveling off for years, the demand for electricity to power end-user devices and data centers is multiplying due to an explosion in data and devices, increasing IT’s overall carbon footprint.
- Water utilization: Datacenter providers consume billions of gallons of water each year, either evaporating it into the atmosphere or transferring it to wastewater facilities. We also do a poor job of factoring in the impacts of water capture, water treatment, water transport, and water disposal in our sustainability efforts.
- Materials impact: Sustainability in IT must factor in the impacts of manufacturing and assembly, including power consumption, water consumption, and raw material consumption. In addition, the environmental effect of using materials, like lithium, tantalum, cadmium, and aluminum, isn’t trivial, whether those materials are mined, reused, or disposed of.
- Disposal: Equipment disposal is a massive task that some organizations and governments do well, and others do poorly, and there’s very little insight into how to manage that problem holistically.
- Inconsistent information: We also know that some IT organizations use more resources than others, but getting detailed, consistent information, provider by provider, data center by data center, is nearly impossible.
For all these reasons and more, doubts remain about the possibilities of making IT more sustainable. It would be relatively easy to address these problems piecemeal, but if you take a step back, you can perceive that they all stem from IT’s failure to embrace and manage the entire lifecycle of IT, from design to disposal.
We think that managing the entire IT lifecycle is the key to making the industry more sustainable. Other industries do this — in those industries, suppliers, vendors, and users gather real-world information over days, months, and years, provide it seamlessly and transparently, and use it to make end-to-end improvements. In our industry, all the suppliers, designers, vendors, data center providers, and disposal companies rarely share data transparently, as an integrated whole, providing the insights needed to make improvements.
The key to insight and accurate decision-making is working with real-world data, understanding just what IT infrastructure does, both as discrete devices and as a collective whole. For IT, that means the data center is the engine of sustainability — it’s where we get the real-world data. The information we gather in day-to-day data center operations, and the information we use to refine how we operate our data centers (through analytics), could give public and private organizations compelling insight to address the environmental and social footprint of IT.
It’s natural for societies to expect technology manufacturers and data center providers to help make infrastructure more sustainable across the entire lifecycle by providing and analyzing data. We should be using our own tools, on ourselves, to discern and improve what we’re doing.
The ability to see opportunities for more harmonious and productive use of IT could have a massive impact on societies, politics, and industry.
However, to see the possibilities, IT organizations have to be more transparent about what they’re doing, the environmental impacts, and their efforts to change the game. Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles to that effort is metrics.
We’ve had some metrics for years, like PUE, that help us manage IT sustainably. They give us insight into energy utilization. We’ve seen, both on the public policy side and the vendor side, efforts around energy efficiency driven by the measurement of PUE. But we can’t improve what we can’t measure.
And without measurement, we can’t be transparent.
What do we need to move forward?
We need new metrics to help us track, analyze, and act upon what’s happening in the data center across the entire IT lifecycle.
Some organizations are rallying around ESG — Environmental, Social, and Governance practices, which aim to sustainably manage environmental impacts. ESG policies focus on, among other areas:
- Energy consumption
- Economic impact
- Ethics and Integrity
ESG initiatives stress the importance of regular and transparent performance with both public and private stakeholders. For example, ESG rating organizations help score business efforts so policymakers and the public can see who’s doing well, and who is lagging behind.
Suppose we can get to an agreed-upon metric that spans everything in the data center from design to recycling. In that case, we’d be in a stronger position to manage impacts, make improvements, and be transparent at any point in the lifecycle.
We need a way to share data transparently.
Unfortunately, at the moment, different companies involved at various stages of the lifecycle aren’t talking with one another. Building connections between hardware designers, manufacturers, data center providers, and reuse/repurpose/recyclers are needed so design decisions support full lifecycle sustainability. Today, we have dozens of disconnected sustainability efforts, many of which are based on lab data instead of real-world testing, instead of an integrated approach, based on clarity and transparency, that improves sustainability everywhere for everyone.
So we have some insight on where the industry needs to go, but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, it’s important to take stock of what your data center provider can do to manage these challenges. At a minimum, a progressive, forward-looking data center provider should give you:
- Clarity around their PUE by data center — not just contracted PUE, but actual PUE.
- Water consumption statistics and any efforts they’re taking to reduce water consumption
- A view of how committed they are to using renewable energy
- An understanding of how they’re relying on environmentally friendly suppliers
- Their process for managing the entire hardware lifecycle, from procurement to disposal.
In conclusion, we see that the best way forward for sustainability improvements comes from a lifecycle management focus, across the entire supply chain, that builds on increased transparency, better metrics, and more collaboration. As a market leader in sustainable IT, we’re committed to trying to influence and guide the industry toward a more sustainable, transparent future.
To learn how we’re making a positive impact by basing the foundation of our company in sustainability, check out our Yearly Impact Report.