How can data centre leaders ensure they move beyond intention to put sustainability into action?

How can data centre leaders ensure they move beyond intention to put sustainability into action?

Schneider Electric, a leader in Digital Transformation of energy management and automation, commissioned two independent research studies focused on sustainability in IT and data centre operations and the results reveal a disconnect between intent and action, indicating most of the industry is still at the beginning stage of its sustainability journey.

The two studies were conducted by industry leading analysts at 451 Research and Forrester. They collected data from nearly 3,000 global participants, including the largest colocation and cloud providers and IT professionals across many segments and organisation sizes. The 451 Research paper revealed a perception-versus-reality dilemma with many enterprise organisations believing their sustainability programmes are more advanced than they are, as ‘the maturity evaluations of nearly half of respondents (48%) did not match a previous answer’. The Forrester paper focused on colocation and found 73% of organisations ranked sustainability as their number two business priority, but only 33% say they have created a strategic sustainability plan.

“The research clearly demonstrates that across the data centre and IT industry, there is a sustainability action gap – the intention appears to be there, but action is lacking,” said Pankaj Sharma, EVP of the Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric. “Of course, IT professionals understand and have taken steps to address sustainability. But what we lack, with some exception, is comprehensive and supported sustainability action plans and measurable targets to create the change required to address the climate crisis. These two research papers have documented a sustainability action gap and that is our collective challenge to address.

Understanding the status of industry-wide sustainability initiatives

Schneider Electric commissioned the two independent research studies, which were designed to help the industry better understand the maturity of sustainability initiatives. The 451 Research paper, Sustainability at the Edge – The Gap between Enterprise Plans and Sustainability Programs for Core and Distributed IT, researched more than 1,150 medium and large enterprises worldwide representing more than 20 verticals and their sustainability efforts with distributed IT resources.

Researchers determined many enterprises believe they are further along in their sustainability journey than they actually are. For this group, the main driver of sustainability is business value and firms start with measuring energy usage then expand into other sustainability metrics and tools. The greatest challenges in their sustainability journeys include optimising energy usage, followed by obtaining consistent data and metrics (for leaders/advanced firms) and lacking skilled staff (for starter organisations).

In Forrester’s leadership paper, Reimagine Colocation Strategy with Sustainability Front of Mind, researchers polled 1,033 global sustainability decision-makers at colocation providers worldwide with the objective of exploring sustainability drivers in the colocation provider industry. The study also explored the major challenges for colocation players and where they are investing the most across the technology stack.

The paper found organisations lack a strong comprehensive strategy for the sustainability programmes, with only 33% saying their business has created a strategic sustainability plan. This indicates that the industry is still at the beginning of a sustainability journey. The paper determined that moving forward, a key piece of sustainability success will be finding the right partner to help organisations succeed. It also found that businesses that hired an outside sustainability consulting firm as part of their sustainability initiatives are 33% more likely to be high maturity.

Dean Boyle, CEO, EkkoSense: It’s easy to understand why good intentions around data centre sustainability are quickly side-tracked by events – this year more than ever. Data centre operations teams might have thought they had enough on their plate trying to balance escalating digital workloads, while also making progress with more demanding ESG and carbon reduction requirements.

Then 2022 got in the way, with its unprecedented energy crisis and record summer temperatures. Many operators now face electricity prices that have more than doubled since last year, while heatwaves in July and August placed exceptional demands on power-hungry data centre cooling infrastructures.
Of course we’re all to blame. As consumers, we insist on instant access to always-on, data-hungry digital services and it’s the same at work where we all now ‘meet’ using bandwidth-intensive video collaboration software and our cloud systems burn up more and more compute power. Despite all this, the pressure to reduce what many external observers see as excessive carbon consumption in data centres isn’t going to go away. So, how can data centre leaders make sure that sustainability stays front and centre – while still delivering against critical productivity and risk management requirements?

Data centre teams already work hard to enable best practice performance across their facilities. Indeed, they may already power their rooms with renewable energy, follow ISO standards for Environment and Energy Management and also take full advantage of the latest cloud, virtualisation and innovative cooling techniques. But what can teams actually do to not just unlock further data centre energy savings but also make sure these kind of sustainability actions are baked into their on-going optimisation processes?
First we have to understand exactly what’s going on in terms of real-time data centre performance. EkkoSense research shows that less than 5% of all data centre operators currently measure what’s happening at the rack level – this means that when it comes to IT cabinets, most operators are effectively blind to their data centre’s actual thermal performance and power consumption. And with 15% of cabinets in the average data centre currently operating outside of recommended ASHRAE thermal standards, that’s simply too high a risk to carry.

Addressing cooling efficiency is one of the most effective ways to optimise performance and secure environmental improvements, but for true data centre performance optimisation it’s essential to monitor and report temperature and cooling loads much more actively. By pursuing a software-enabled AI-powered approach to data centre performance optimisation, operations teams can gain the real-time performance insights they need to support both increased workloads while also securing quantifiable and repeatable energy savings. And because this approach can be deployed very quickly, there’s no reason why you can’t access these kinds of savings and sustainability benefits within weeks.

Kamel Al-Tawil, Managing Director, Middle East and North Africa, Equinix:

Sustainability is now a much higher priority for communities, government, businesses of all sizes and across industries and individuals alike.

According to the latest Equinix Global Tech Trends Survey, 82% of tech decision-makers in the UAE indicate that sustainability is now one of their organisation’s most important drivers and 83% say they’ll only work with IT partners who can meet key carbon reduction targets.

As we strive to become one of the world’s most sustainable digital infrastructure providers, Equinix’s colocation and interconnection services already enable companies to operate more sustainably and with greater agility in the face of market uncertainties – by implementing the below four principles:

  • Low-carbon energy helps scale data volumes without increasing emissions
    While increasing energy efficiency in our data centres is a top priority, we recognise that energy use is inevitable. Equinix data centres are designed to high operational and energy efficiency standards, enabling customers to reduce their carbon footprint and meet their sustainability targets. We were the first in the data centre industry to commit to being 100% climate neutral by 2030 and also have a goal to use 100% renewable energy across all our data centres.
  • Designing for circularity redefines the potential of data centres
    Waste heat is an unfortunate but necessary by-product of data centre operations. Equinix is working to turn that heat into a secondary product that can be resold or shared with those who need it. We’ve successfully deployed waste heat redistribution projects in several sites across our global footprint. We’re also working to implement innovative ways to put more water back into the community than our data centres use. We are focused on reducing water use through water recovery and greywater recycling systems and through more efficient designs such as on-site fuel cells – helping us avoid use of 118 billion gallons and saving 37 billion gallons of water per year, respectively.
  • Greater efficiency with software optimisation and automation One of the key requirements of reducing energy waste in data centres is knowing exactly where waste occurs. At Equinix, we’re deploying software-optimised data centre systems to enable power optimisation strategies such as through our partnership with VPS and Natron Energy, where we’re pairing software-defined power with cabinet-mounted battery energy storage.

With AI algorithms, automated data centres can take in key data points, use them to accurately predict sustainability metrics under specific scenarios and optimise operations accordingly. These algorithms automate the balancing of demand for power and scheduling workloads based on when renewable energy is available.

High-efficiency cooling helps limit energy waste
Equinix is maximising cooling efficiency through optimised airflow management. Rather than allowing hot air and cool air to flow throughout our facilities at random, we use physical barriers to restrict cool air to supply aisles and hot air to exhaust aisles. By ensuring optimal distribution of cool air, we’ve been able to keep our power usage effectiveness (PUE) low, even in warmer climates like here in the Middle East, where cooling IT equipment can be especially difficult and energy intensive.

Rich Kenny, Sustainability and Research Director and Astrid Wynne, Head of Sustainability – Techbuyer:

The key thing is that leaders must very much commit to making the necessary changes or it will never happen. Leaders need to understand and quantify the positive impacts that can come as a result of adopting sustainable practices so that they have an incentive to seize the opportunity sustainable practice represents.

Traditionally, the sector focuses on the elements of sustainability that relate to efficiency and reduced costs, like energy efficiency. There has been less of an interest in other material reductions like the use of water, metals and critical raw materials. However, with material shortages on the near-term horizon, this is going to have to change in the medium term.

Sustainability brings reduced water and energy bills, with associated carbon savings and cost benefits. It means conserving stockpiles of rare earths and precious metals, insulating the business from market volatility, which is something that is going to be increasingly important over the next decade. Sustainable business practice also helps to better employee engagement and retention, which is vital in a sector facing a skills shortage and having to compete with higher profile industries for young talent.

There are also customer and investment benefits of aligning to doing the right thing as well as raised brand profile – and that’s without going into the benefits for our local communities, the environment, biodiversity and our future society.

A sustainability plan is like any other business plan – it relates to risk and opportunity, strengths and weaknesses. Once the intention is made, leaders need to articulate an improvement plan framed around what the impacts of the business are on the environment and how these can be improved. This starts with a reduction of harmful practices and ends with mitigation of the harm that cannot be removed. It requires whole systems thinking.

For the data centre sector, decision-makers need to focus on energy efficiency from the IT as a first resort rather than the cooling/power generation and building. With a historic focus on PUE, we have tended to ignore the simple truth that IT efficiency is at the heart of data centre efficiency. Not only are the servers the reason the building exists, they are also the single highest energy draw and environmental impact of the data centre. This is not a common approach in the industry and that needs to change as soon as possible.

Right now, the data centre sector is pretty risk averse and reluctant to do anything. Within that is a real opportunity for forward-thinking leaders who want to do things differently. Given where we are with materials and energy supply, sustainability will not be a choice in 10 years’ time. There is huge advantage to being an early mover.

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