Data centers are navigating a period of conflicting demand. On one hand, the race to net zero carbon emissions is intensifying, and the industry is making strides in lowering energy usage, whilst, on the other hand, the industry is seeing a rapid digital acceleration, the vast proliferation of smart devices, and an upward surge in data demand. The total installed base of IoT devices worldwide is projected to amount to 30.9 billion units by 2025, a sharp jump from the 13.8 billion units that are expected in 2021.
The data center market is no stranger to energy efficiency strategies and, in recent years, has led by example in the mission critical arena by cutting energy consumption and adopting greener expansion plans.
Significant progress has been made, and the sector has laid the groundwork to continue a greener growth path. To better envisage just how energy efficient data processing has become, imagine that, if the airline industry was able to demonstrate the same level of efficiency, a typical 747 passenger plane would be able to fly from New York to London on just 2.8 liters of fuel in around eight minutes.
In fact, despite their accelerated growth and reliance on power and cooling around the clock, data centers are only estimated to consume between 1% to 2% of the world’s electricity. A recent data center study even confirmed that, while computing output jumped sixfold from 2010 to 2018, energy consumption rose by only 6%.
That said, data center operators are faced with the challenge of managing carbon emissions and meeting growing demand in tandem. So, what changes can data center operators make to achieve greater energy efficiency?
There are a range of infrastructure modifications data centers can adopt to dramatically reduce their total energy consumption and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Solutions include innovating more energy-efficient power systems or even moving entirely to large-scale battery energy storage systems (BESSs) to ensure reliable power connectivity in case of prolonged periods of power loss.
However, battery energy storage and energy-efficient power are big budget changes. And, while they have impressive yields, they can be cost-prohibitive for data centers navigating more challenging growth paths.
Fortunately, there is much that can be done to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency in a less cost-intensive way, and that is by digitization.
Making Every Watt Count
The need for additional data shows no sign of slowing down, and it is the job of data centers to meet this increased demand without consuming significantly more energy. Unlike many industries that wait for regulations before forcing change, the desire to offer a more environmentally conscious data center comes from within the industry, with facilities small and large taking an "every watt counts" approach to operational efficiency.
By digitizing data centers, operators can react to increased demand without incurring significant additional emissions. Running data centers at higher temperatures, switching to variable frequency drives instead of dampers to control fan loads, adopting the improved efficiency of modern UPS systems, and using virtualization to reduce the number of underutilized servers are all strong contenders for improved data center efficiency.
There are several "no regrets" actions data center operators and managers can take, including the following.
Adopting Best Cooling Practices
Traditional air cooling systems have proven very effective at maintaining a safe, controlled environment for rack densities of 2 to 3 kW per rack all the way to 25 kW per rack. However, operators are now aspiring to create an environment that can support densities in excess of 30 to 50 kW, and, at these levels, air cooling technologies are no longer the most effective.
That shouldn’t be seen as a barrier, though, with alternative cooling systems, such as rear door heat exchangers, providing a suitable solution.
Plugging Into the Smart Grid
Smart grids enable two-way energy and information flows to create an automated and distributed power delivery network. Data center operators can not only draw clean power from the grid, they can also install renewable power sources within their facility in order to become an occasional power supplier themselves.
Minimizing Idle IT Equipment
There are a number of ways data centers can minimize idle IT equipment. One popular course of action is distributed computing, which links computers together as if they were a single machine. Essentially, by scaling up the number of data centers that work together, operators can increase their processing power, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for separate facilities for specific applications.
Undergoing a program of virtualization can significantly improve the utilization of hardware, enabling a reduction in the number of power-consuming services and storage devices. In fact, it can even improve server usage by around 40%, increasing it from an average of 10% to 20% to at least 50% or 60%.
Blade servers can help drive consolidation as they provide more processing output per unit of power consumed. Consolidating storage provides another opportunity, which improves memory utilization while reducing power consumption. Some consolidation methods can use up to 90% less power once fully operational.
Big savings are also coming from moving to solid state disc drives (SSDs) from traditional optical drives (HDDs). While a bit more expensive, they’re much smaller and more energy efficient and can be done during an IT refresh cycle every three to five years or so.
Managing CPU Power Usage
More than 50% of the power required to run a server is used by its central processing unit (CPU). Most CPUs have power management features that optimize power consumption by dynamically switching among multiple performance states based on utilization.
By dynamically ratcheting down processor voltage and frequency outside of peak performance tasks, the CPU can minimize energy waste.
Virtually all IT equipment is designed to work with input power voltages ranging from 100- to 240-V AC in accordance with global standards, and, the general rule is, of course, the higher the voltage, the more efficient the unit.
That said, by operating a UPS at 240/415 V, three-phase, four-wire output power, a server can be fed directly, and an incremental 2% reduction in facility energy can be achieved.
A More Sustainable and Efficient Future
Meeting government net-zero targets is the responsibility of every industry, and the data center sector has made clear headway compared to other mission critical environments. That said, many data centers are yet to fully realize the benefits of safe, smart, and sustainable digitization strategies to meet the increasing data demand in the most efficient way.