It’s no secret that data demands across the globe are on the rise. 5G, IoT, edge and cloud architectures, content streaming, and more are driving massive compute, storage, and distribution requirements. In fact, worldwide data creation is expected to remain on its exponential upswing to reach a forecasted 175 zettabytes by 2025. To put this in perspective, analysts have observed that if each terabyte in a zettabyte represented a kilometer, a single zettabyte would be equivalent to 1,300 trips to the moon and back (768,800 kilometers).
As a foundational element of this constantly expanding datasphere, data centers have been proliferating and demand for these facilities has been growing parallel to cater to the businesses and end users that want to expand their digital capabilities. Subsequently, reports have stated the global data center market will grow at an estimated compound annual growth rate of 17% between 2020 and 2023.
That might be good news for the data center industry but not so much for the environment.
THE CHALLENGE AT HAND
Not only do the IT equipment turnovers associated with data center innovation generate huge amounts of electronic waste (around 50 million metric tons in 2018 alone — a number that is growing), but sources say the industry’s carbon emissions rival those of the airline industry. Additionally, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that annual data center electricity consumption in the U.S. is projected to grow from 91 billion kWh in 2013 to around 140 billion kWh in 2020.
As the global dependence on data and associated infrastructure expands, combatting the threat to climate change is paramount. It’s becoming clear that sustainability must be considered a core metric of ongoing success and a vital consideration when designing, building, and managing a data center.
This means data centers must now grapple with new decisions when it comes to items such as the cost, consumption, and availability of power — 40% of which can frequently be used for cooling alone. It also means that servers and other equipment must be improved to work more efficiently. The industry must find unique ways of making this new breed of sustainable facilities a reality on a short timeline.
CREATING A SUSTAINABLE DATA CENTER
To combat the large amount of power consumption dedicated to cooling, strategic facility siting has become a primary consideration when developing data centers. Naturally, cold climates or proximity to large bodies of water make for ideal data center locations. They deliver great operational benefits, enabling facilities to capitalize on their surroundings to streamline and maximize their cooling potential. Renewables, such as wind, solar, and hydro, are also gaining popularity. One survey of over 800 industry professionals predicted that in 2025, 13% of global data center power will come from solar and 8% from wind — but this number needs to grow. Google is a leader in this space — the company recently celebrated its third consecutive year of purchasing enough renewable energy to match the entirety of its annual global electricity consumption.
Innovations with AI and machine learning are also opening up new opportunities for energy conservation due to their ability to analyze temperature, humidity, output, and other indicators in order to find ways of optimizing and driving down costs and consumption. On the equipment side, server virtualization and consolidation are promising options for reducing power demands and achieving new efficiencies, while data management optimization has also made the usage of server capacity more effective. Low-power chips and solid state drives are driving similar efficiencies, and adiabatic systems (which work through the use of evaporation) are using less water for cooling and require less maintenance — even a simple analysis and reorganization of airflow can bring down cooling inefficiencies substantially. Furthermore, these optimization opportunities don’t just cut down on negative environmental effects; they also cut down on operating costs for providers. Data center owners see the benefits in their bottom lines, which gives them a competitive edge when attracting new tenants.
TODAY’S DEDICATION, TOMORROW’S SALVATION
As the industry evolves to cater to the future of 5G and the IoT, reducing or even neutralizing the impact that data storage, processing, and management has on the environment is absolutely vital. The number of connected devices remains on the rise, data volumes are rapidly expanding, and power needs are growing alongside them, but with a plethora of tools at hand — and new solutions being continually developed — providers are better able to pivot now than ever before. Data centers are accustomed to provisioning the utmost security, scalability, and reliability, but it’s time for all data center companies to ensure that sustainability has a dedicated space alongside these priorities. Systemic change may not occur overnight, but once environmental impact becomes a primary consideration for the data center sphere, the world will be better positioned for a brighter future.