Traditional data centers and proof-of-work crypto facilities have some obvious differences. For one thing, crypto centers do not build for redundancy, leading to a consensus that these high-compute facilities don’t meet the necessary criteria to be considered a general purpose data center. 

Mining for cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, requires specialized, high-performance hardware to accurately solve mathematical problems in the shortest time possible by using computer algorithms. The demand for this equipment and space increases each day. Facilities designed and built to run mining operations must offer some of the most efficient cooling and power density architecture to manage the computing power. The massive power consumption of this industry is estimated to be roughly the same as some small countries. To be fair, it’s about on par with the amount of power the data center industry consumes. But, what makes this so mind-blowing is that, while data centers serve most of the global population, only a few mining operators protect the majority of the decentralized network.

Nevertheless, the data center and cryptocurrency industries are married in the court of public opinion. Call it a common-law marriage, but still — when it comes to laws and regulations, that’s all that’s going to really matter because the public and government sentiment will wed us in such a way that the regulations will target us as one. We need to act accordingly. Bitcoin mining is regularly painted in a poor light in the media. This should be an alarm bell for the broader data center industry. Why? Because the issues raised aren’t specific to crypto. The same complaints are used to keep data centers out of cities across the country: too much power usage and noise pollution with little-to-no positive social impact on the communities in which they operate, and the list goes on.

To learn what we might do to right our course, I spoke with Shawn Novak, an expert in sustainability solutions for the digital infrastructure industry. In past roles, he has brokered crypto leases in colocation sites and has watched mining operations transition to the facilities and processes we know now. He shared his war stories, where, years ago, the mobility of the crypto mining companies was a reputed issue, as many were fly-by-night organizations that could abandon facilities when they got the tokens they were mining for, leaving servers and gear behind, using power they never paid for. At the time, industry players didn’t care about renewable power generation. They would take cheap power anywhere they could find it, using designs that involved dirty air blowing through servers. They didn’t need to care — it was mine and move on. 

That past may have colored our confidence in their credibility within our industry, but, fortunately, much has changed. Novak was proud to report that, now, crypto is more established — we understand the business better, and the currency has proven it’s here to stay. Years later, the hunt for edge locations to house these rapidly scaling tech novelties is in full swing. Between crypto, AI, and traditional data centers, the industry is focused on a different level of technology, grid integration, efficiency, and sustainable operations. 

While differences remain in our designs and operating practices, data centers and crypto facilities share more similarities than we do differences, and, because of this, we have a lot we can learn from each other. We both have large power demands to address through integrating renewables, building new facilities that enable efficiency gains, optimizing hardware, applying cooling designs that lessen our power consumption, and the like. 

The data center industry has led the charge on sustainability practices by working closely with utilities to adopt and provision renewable energy sources. Additionally, the industry has made significant strides in improving power and cooling methods to operate more sustainably while decreasing costs and improving uptime. Cryptocurrency mining facilities are similarly focused on reigning in their power consumption. Similar to the iMasons Climate Accord, a coalition formed in 2022 with the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of digital infrastructure, the Crypto Climate Accord, driven by the private sector, focuses on decarbonization

Novak suggested that we, as a holistic industry, including crypto, AI, and hyperscale operations, have to come up with innovative and disruptive technologies to solve for our usage. We have drowned and consumed all utility power, especially in the U.S. Let’s remember that we own disruptive and innovative technology at its core. 

“If we want to encourage a future in which innovative technologies, such as cryptocurrency and AI, are used widely, we need to be better, smarter, greener, and more efficient than all our previous generations,” Novak said. “We need to provide innovation at its best.”

With crypto regulation looming, theirs is a tale much like our own. In fact, it will become a precursor to ours because we are so similar in the public eye. For many reasons, crypto can absorb more risk in their designs and operations. Because of our crucial differences, here are some of the ways we can learn from them and begin to drive our own change.

  • Despite the massive global energy consumption of cryptocurrencies, crypto center operations are already highly optimized, deploying innovative approaches and technologies. Instead of focusing primarily on availability and reliability — a necessity for most other data centers — crypto facilities focus mainly on optimizing for cost of compute performance. This is often achieved by eliminating infrastructure (generators, UPSs, etc.), innovating silicon design, and deploying direct liquid cooling. Compared with traditional data centers, crypto IT operations tend to drive out cost and optimize performance, thanks in part to the heavy use of purpose-built accelerator chips, many of which can be liquid cooled, enabling greater efficiencies. Similarly for data centers, building for efficiency gains will be critical, which means we also have to be willing to disrupt design and operations.
  • Learn from their speed to market. If crypto facilities can be built in six months using renewable sources, they will do it. Reputation aside, they can enjoy the advantages of not worrying about latency issues or maintaining constant uptime using complex designs for resiliency like N+1 or concurrently retainable ones. They can deploy in a way we should acknowledge we all envy. 
  • Utilities don't understand that latency determines where we put our data centers, not just power. With both crypto and AI, sites don’t need to be located in fiber landing stations, such as, Ashburn, Virginia; Phoenix; or Silicon Valley, because latency just doesn’t exist in the same way. We can try to look at resiliency through a similar lens. Blockchain technology has broadly established a new workload paradigm through decentralization. This helps ensure uptime at the blockchain network without relying on a single server or site for computation. This type of resiliency and workload definition is inevitable for traditional compute. 
  • Circularity must be embraced with both hardware and power use. Crypto hardware and sites may quickly become obsolete, but our traditional data centers can step in and take on some of that. In the name of circularity and speed, we can find ways to repurpose their old sites, processors, etc. With power, we can also use heat dissipation from generators to cool servers and use it to go carbon negative. Crypto is not only generating their own renewables, but has little mission critical components, lowering their extra energy spent on additional power and cooling. Recycling and repurposing will be the basis of a net negative carbon footprint building by eliminating embodied emissions. We can put in remote data center products, distributed technology solutions, and 100% renewable, zero embodied emission cloud options to further reduce negative environmental impacts. Some technologies would enable us to even sell back what isn’t being used. Without the negative connotations, by not dirtying up the world, can you imagine if our industry was truly looking at these technologies, if we put systems in now to make our operations more sustainable? With heat repurposing, we already have a chance to be net negative. This is disruptive, innovative tech we can deploy across the industry to achieve net zero goals  to — stay up and running but off-grid.
  • Crypto facilities are willing and able to design and build off-grid. Since data centers need to be 100% operational with no downtime, we are afraid to take all our power off the grid and run strictly on renewable generation. However, large hyperscale operators are looking into this technology today. We should champion crypto and AI facilities that can shut down and never worry because they are the perfect candidate to test renewable generation that only uses utilities as a redundant power source.
    If we as an industry can similarly focus on generating our own renewable power, like what crypto is doing with wind, solar, hydrogen fuel cell generation, and natural gas generation, we can start our own transition. This adoption does not exist in the data center world. Let’s watch and learn. Innovation and adoption from larger players is necessary to progress beyond conventional approaches. Hyperscalers can lead the way by allowing for innovation and accepting outages that may or may not occur by rolling off to another building. If hyperscale says they can be fine going off-grid and creating energy, it shows the rest of us that this actually works, and we know we can do it too. Let’s similarly learn to build availability zones to reduce carbon and embodied emissions. Have one data center on utility, one off, and roll all instances over to the utility if the need arises. In the thousands of available hours per year, we can generate our own power and still have 100% uptime. Just know: we can build sustainable solutions off-grid.
  • Efficiency alone is not going to solve our net zero challenge. Consider the case of solar as a renewable power gen option — the embodied emissions to build a solar plant might take 15 years to offset. In addition, by the time you achieve ROI for solar, you may be replacing many of the panels, leading to another capital event. Nuclear has an uphill battle to fight, but it remains the cleanest energy. If the tech exists that is so much more improved and advanced, it has to be led through the adoption by bigger players. Most operators can’t do this, or won’t do this, because innovative tech comes with too much risk of failure during an outage. We are incentivized to not think outside our immediate jobs. We have to figure out how to clean our energy usage. That’ how everyone can get to a net zero goal. Offsets and RECs won’t get us there; it has to be done through innovation. 

All of this boils down to one main premise: It’s time to get off-grid. If we do, we never have to hear this story again. Government and power availability will force us to change our designs. We have to take responsibility for our own energy production. If we can learn from crypto, AI, and hyperscale experiences and work toward sustainable solutions with 100% uptime by focusing on the energy we bring in, then we are in control. We can’t do this with offsets alone; we have to reduce usage. Take your generated energy, store it, and bring it back any time you want. If you include grid support capability, you can dictate how much utility power you use and when you’re going to use it. Don’t just use less power. Generate and consume it more efficiently by determining when and where it gets used. U.S. operators must start taking refuge in deregulated energy states to take advantage of prime on-site power solutions that can deliver uptime.

Digital infrastructure requires an exorbitant amount of energy, creating a monstrosity of a situation where concerns about overburdening the grid are legitimate. Systemic change is unavoidable, and the industry can either seize the bull by the horns or be trampled by the stampede of regulatory processes that are headed our way. We need to accommodate technologies and innovations at a much faster rate if we hope to survive. 

You’ve already read a lot of what Novak had to say, so I’ll leave you with the questions he still has. 

“When will the world accept innovation, and how long will it take us to adopt?”