How Much Water Do Data Centers Drink?
Do you know?
Ask most data center staff how their professional performance is measured and it will be on availability, nothing else. Financial or operational efficiency doesn’t matter. Their main responsibility is ensuring workers and customers can access the data and business applications they rely on every day.
If the engineering manager requests a batch of new servers or hardware critical to maintaining availability, then the CFO has little choice but to comply. After all, the data center can never fail. It powers everything our world runs on — national economies and banking, transportation, social media.
Now, it must be said that this focus on availability does not apply to every business. Some forward-thinking C-suites understand the critical importance of the data center and are rethinking how they manage the investments they make in their facilities. They are selecting newer, more efficient technologies that slash operational expenditure. Finance, IT, and operations are working together to deliver a more commercially-aligned approach to facility design, construction, management, and accountability.
The influx of operational business tools proves this point. The next evolution in software — advanced analytics solutions that enhance data center performance management — is seeing dramatic adoption, especially as companies challenge the status quo.
Evidence of this can be seen with the numerous advancements being made in energy efficiency initiatives, smart facility design, and via infrastructure manufacturers that are rethinking design processes for their hardware.
This is extremely positive news, however accompanying every slight improvement in data center efficiency (commonly measured by power usage effectiveness [PUE]), comes another challenge — natural resource usage.
NEW TECHNOLOGY EQUALS NEW CHALLENGES
Water is a dramatic data center resource to focus on because there is currently a trade-off occurring between cost, power usage, cooling technology, and water. Water usage in the data center is rising due to a number of new technical developments. And fast.
The most common is “adiabatic cooling.” It sounds boring, but it is critical to facilities. The cooling system evaporates water and this cooler air is distributed around the facility via enormous industrial-sized fans.
Alongside the large energy and financial costs required to operate adiabatic cooling, systems such as these are severely lacking from the point of view of environmental sustainability. Once traditional chillers, liquid cooling systems, and other evaporative cooling technologies are added to the equation, it is clear that many facilities are not as “green” as they first appear.
It must be said. Water usage alone is not necessarily a negative, but then there are the processes supporting water consumption — storage, the power needed to distribute water throughout a facility, collection and transportation processes, treatment and ionization to enable long-term storage, and the associated maintenance of said systems. Each stage requires energy, financial investment, and large volumes of fresh water.
These three requirements alone are concerning from a corporate social responsibility (CSR) perspective, and that is before we have analyzed the locations where some of these practices are especially prevalent.
California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas are four states where water supplies are under strain. Each state contains a large number of data centers due to the dry climates ideal for the aforementioned cooling methods. All four are suffering from sustained drought, recovering from a drought, or facing the potential of one developing. Due to the additional benefit of tax incentives offered by these states they are also data center hubs for some of the world’s most data-intensive organizations including Facebook, Amazon, and Google.
As the Wall Street Journal famously wrote, California has over 800 data centers which are estimated to use the equivalent of 158,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools a year. A 15-megawatt facility uses roughly 130 million gallons of water annually. That is the same as an average hospital and more than two 18-hole golf courses — which do you think the general public values more?
This is not only a North American problem. Governments of growing economies such as India are under huge pressure to deliver economic growth, raise living standards, secure water supplies, and embrace transformative connected technologies that are dependent on data centers. There has to be a balance.
THE CRACKS UNDER THE SURFACE
It is easy to see why water consumption is such a pressing matter. In the eyes of the public, people have to drink to survive, data centers do not. This viewpoint makes the data center a soft target for national and regional governments for two reasons.
Firstly, facilities are still seen as a non-essential entity by many businesses, environmentalists, and lobbying groups. Secondly, improvements can be made to a data center but many organizations still do not choose to invest money intelligently in the data center as executives have other priorities that take precedent.
That said, one thing that is completely clear is the business and public relations implications of inaction to water consumption:
Intense scrutiny from the general public, customers, and shareholders
Potential for public opinion of the brand to affect investment
Public pressure from environmental groups such as Greenpeace
Financial inefficiency from wasteful usage, rising water prices, and increased taxation
Board-level resistance against future projects and investments
Understandably, this article is not a call for operators to halt their use of water completely, more that executives, enterprises, and data center operators now have a real opportunity to drive real change and improvement.
Obviously, words are important, but practical action and investment in improvements are another matter. Generally, there needs to be a catalyst that drives individuals and businesses to take action. Historically, in the context of the data center, the incentive has always been financial or related to solving a negative situation. For example, if there is the opportunity to save $3 million by investing $100,000, senior executives will likely be open to the project.
If water subsidiaries start ending or taxation increases 5% year on year, there will be more impetus from the CFO or the operational team to devote greater attention to how the data center uses water.
Accountability also has the potential to improve corporate management. If local communities cannot access clean water supplies and government regulators are deciding between agricultural and industrial usage, the former will be chosen over the latter every time.
Predictive analytics and detailed reporting capabilities are reducing this knowledge gap. New cloud-based software solutions are empowering executives from across the business to work closer together. Essentially, businesses can strengthen their position as a leader by ensuring they are committed to sustainable water usage practices now and far into the future.
The outcomes are resoundingly positive — improved public perception, increased efficiency relating to water usage, greater cost management, and stronger customer relationships. The first stage in delivering these benefits is for an organization to understand how their facility is using water and what can be done to reduce consumption. A continuous process of model, simulate, predict, and analyze, united with informed decision-making, should elevate the business from a passive water user to genuine strategic leader.