Data center innovation at scale is dependent on holistic sustainability, not just renewables

Over the last ten to fifteen years, the data center industry has faced a reckoning when it comes to sustainability. What we once considered a nice-to-have, is becoming a true necessity.

The problem lies in what exactly those standards are, and when sustainability feels like a loose term already, the details on just how much a data center impacts the environment are just as fuzzy. According to Data Center Dynamics, unreliable figures mean “data center operators don’t treat the issue with the right seriousness, energy grids can’t plan for their demands, it’s impossible to get a true picture of data centers’ role in global warming, and we see a series of heated but inconclusive arguments.” 

Closely related to that inconclusive data is the practice of greenwashing and greenhushing — where organizations may use bandaid fixes that don’t show the true environmental impact of facilities. So when figures are unclear and data isn’t shared (or even when it is shared), how do we approach the problem?

The industry is still taking a stand to transition into renewable energy and other environmentally-friendly practices. Like most things, there’s a transitional period as data center providers incorporate those environmental standards into practice, and determine the best course of action for their customers as data gets better and more transparent.

While a renewable power source or smaller facility footprint is a completely valid approach, they’re piecemeal. Patrick Quirk, our Cheif Technology Officer, says that “Until we, as a broader industry incorporate in the silicon, the software, the system level people, and the data center design people – everything together – we’re never going to get the efficiency levels, the performance levels, or the sustainability levels that we need.”

What needs to be put into practice is a holistic view of sustainability, where we look to combine more than just one or two environmentally responsible practices together. When the process and design of the facility start with considering all of these things together, the outcome is significantly more impactful:

  • Power
    • Utilize renewable energy:
      • Hydroelectric
      • Solar
      • Geothermal
      • Nuclear (where available)
    • Consider how this renewable energy power impacts the local grid: can you give back power to the local municipality if you overproduce? 
    • Can you prevent the over-build of power infrastructure by considering alternatives to using diesel generators or bulk storage as backup?
  • Cooling/Water Consumption
    • What cooling alternatives are available that can reduce or eliminate reliance on chemical coolants (hint: consider a water-cooled facility with Nautilus).
    • Consider partnering with municipalities to be a positive impact utilizing the existing water system: using grey water or existing bodies of water.
  • Land/Zoning
  • Density
    • Increase density with advanced technology (which is also improved by using liquid cooling rather than traditional methods).
  • Size
    • With the rapid onset of the cloud and the same advanced technology that supports increased density, the need for hyperscale facilities is breaking down. This allows you to take advantage of smaller data centers, and even multiple small, spread-out facilities.
  • Supply chain management

 

Sustainable data centers are only going to become the norm, so pulling out of the myopic view of implementing environmentally friendly practices and applying sustainable thinking across every aspect of your data center operations is critical not only to the Earth but to support your business’ success.

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