Being that this is the March/April issue, I pondered how Earth Day, April 22, and International Data Center Day (IDC Day), March 25, might clash or align in their goals.

While this is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it is only the second annual IDC Day. So, how do we reconcile the Earth Day goals to mitigate climate change and pollution with the general perception that massive data centers are consuming terawatt hours of energy and creating a negative evironmental impact?

“Earth Challenge 2020 (EC2020) is the world’s largest-ever coordinated citizen science campaign,” according to the Earth Day website. “Coordinated in partnership with the Wilson Center and the U.S. Department of State, Earth Challenge 2020 connects, builds, and enables global communities to leverage the power of scientific research to drive meaningful change ... Starting in April 2020, the campaign will use a mobile app to collect billions of observations in air quality, plastic pollution, and insect populations, providing a platform and valuable environmental insight to promote policy change in these areas.”

The obvious irony is that the Earth Day organization and affiliated groups are utilizing the entire digital infrastructure from end to end (mobile networks, telecomm, and data centers) to achieve their worthwhile goals. So, has EC2020 consortium made a deal with the devil, or is this evolving into a potentially symbiotic relationship?

The data center ecosystem has made substantial progress over the past dozen years since The Green Grid first introduced the PUE metric. Facility power and cooling efficiencies have improved substantially, PUE has dropped down to 1.1 for some hyperscalers and ranges from 1.3 to 1.5 for many new colocation facilities.  UPS efficiency has risen from 88% to 97% or better for the newest systems, even in double-conversion mode (while under 50% load), thanks to silicon-carbide-based switching.

Moreover, conventional mechanical cooling, coupled with variable-speed electronically commutated fans, has virtually cut cooling energy by half, even as IT power densities have doubled or tripled.

Liquid cooling, while still not mainstream, has become a more viable alternative for some conventional higher-density applications (not just for supercomputers). This provides the opportunity for waste heat recovery, opening the pathway for the net-zero energy data centers. And despite massive increases in power demands, IT equipment continues to improve its performance per watt with the advent of the Energy Star program for servers, storage, and networking. While it has really improved the effective use of facility energy to accommodate greater IT capacity, it is also being driven by other more basic reasons.

Although there are still a myriad of ongoing opportunities for efficiency improvements in the data center and the communication infrastructure, the industry ecosystem has an inherent reason for becoming more energy efficient: profit. 

For most organizations, data processing has gone from a necessary in-house cost factor to outsourced services (provided by cloud and colocation providers). And like any other business, it is driven by profit margins, which, in this case, are closely related to the cost of energy.

Clearly, EC2020 is leveraging technology to measure and, hopefully, manage climate change strategy. Yet the same people who criticize the massive growth of the data center industry and its energy consumption are the same users who are demanding the services that require ever more massive data storage, bandwidth (mobile and wired), and computing power (think social media, video streaming, and in-home voice recognition assistants helping you shop or change channels, etc.).

The Bottom Line

So does that negate the argument that data centers and global sustainably goals are mutually exclusive?

If you think that on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day the majority of modern society is suddenly about to go back to growing its own food or abandon the use of these digital conveniences, just wait for a 5G commercial to show up on your 70-inch smart TV (or your “obsolete” 4G phone).  

In any event, until we achieve cold fusion or matter/antimatter energy generation (as well as warp drive), let’s all continue our combined efforts toward a common goal of nurturing the Earth, since we have not yet been able to visit or live on other planets yet.