Powering the Future

By Harry Menear
Data Centre Magazine takes a deep dive into the future of powering the data centre industry...

As the demand for data - the therefore data centres - skyrockets, data centre operators are finding themselves faced with the increasing challenge of meeting insatiable demand while managing the environmental impact of their facilities.

“In today’s ‘on demand’ world, as computationally-intensive applications such as video on demand, autonomous vehicles and advanced 5G technology grow in popularity, data centres will need to find ways to maintain a focus on sustainable progress through its partners, operations and wider value chain,” says Brian Johnson, global data centre leader at ABB.

From increased efficiency to innovations in power purchasing and energy storage, Data Centre Magazine takes a deep dive into the evolving relationship between digital infrastructure demand, the dire need for sustainability, and the innovations reconciling the global hunger for data and the demand for environmental reform in a power-hungry industry. 

The ‘On Demand’ World  

Global data traffic has grown at an astonishing rate over the past two decades. At the time of the dot com crash in 2001, less than 7% of the world’s population had access to the internet. By 2017, 50% of the global population was online, and by 2023, there predicted to be more than 5.3bn internet users around the world, representing 66% of humanity. 

People aren’t the only things connecting to the internet in droves, however. In two years time, the number of devices connected to IP networks will amount to more than triple the global population. While this trend is being partially driven by increased penetration of smartphones, tablets and personal computers in developing markets, the soaring number of internet connected devices is primarily due to an explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT). From smart water metres and industrial temperature gauges to connected doorbells and home hub refrigerators, this will be the decades when every surface, object and piece of infrastructure in our cities becomes an interface with the digital world. As these machines act more and more autonomously, the way in which information is produced will radically change. Machine to machine (M2M) connections will account for half of the global connected devices and connections by 2023, up from 33% in 2018. 

At the same time, the amount of information being created, processed, transmitted and stored by these devices is set to grow at an increasingly exponential rate. The expansion of the IoT - alongside advances in AI and high performance computing, as well as a generational leap in communications networks brought on by 5G - is going to result in a world saturated and fueled by data. 

In this data-driven world, data centres are set to become even more crucial pieces of infrastructure, as everything from social media and e-commerce to enterprise functions and government operations progress towards the cloud. The past 12 months have only accelerated the trend, with the COVID-19 pandemic driving a massive spike in remote work, online learning, video streaming and e-commerce.  

“Data traffic has been growing at an astonishing rate over the years and this has been accelerated in 2020 with the shift to remote working,” says Oliver Goodman, head of engineering at Telehouse. “This growth will continue in 2021 with employers adapting hybrid strategies where some of the workforce continue to work remotely. It will also be driven by the rise of 5G networks, the IoT and edge computing. All of this is increasing the power consumption of our facilities, but the industry is committed to improving the efficiency of their data centre.” 

Understanding PUE

Power usage effectiveness (PUE) is a ratio used to determine how efficiency a data centre uses energy. The metric was originally developed by the Green Grid consortium and first published as a methodology in 2016. A data centre running at 100% efficiency would have a PUE of 1. Currently, the industry standard for data centres is a PUE of around 1.8. 

Largely, PUE is agreed upon to be a useful way to measure the efficiency with which a data centre consumes energy. However, it’s worth noting that a low PUE can sometimes be misleading if used as the sole measurement of a data centre’s sustainability. 

Paul Nelson, strategist and director at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, notes that PUE is greatly affected by “exterior and interior factors,” adding that a data centre’s PUE is “relative and varies over time” due to factors like IT utilisation, environmental factors like the time or year or current weather, the hardware used to cool the data centre, and stage of the data centre in its build out. 

“The only problem with using PUE as a metric is that there is more than one way to calculate it, making it difficult to compare one facility with another,” notes Johnson, positing that, “What is needed are performance metrics that are more holistic than PUE in measuring data centre efficiency. The key limitation of PUE is that it measures the overall efficiency of an entire building infrastructure supporting a given data centre, indicating nothing about the efficiency of the IT equipment itself. IT efficiency, on the other hand, is the total IT output of a data centre divided by the total input power to IT equipment.”

Unparalleled Efficiency

While demand for data centre services has risen dramatically over the past few years, data centre operators have managed to find innovative solutions that have prevented power consumption from rising in step with IT workloads. 

“Despite the digital acceleration and vast proliferation of smart devices and online culture, a recent study found that, while data centres’ computing output jumped six-fold from 2010 to 2018, energy consumption rose by only 6%,” explains Johnson. “To give an idea of just how energy-efficient data processing has become, if the airline industry was able to demonstrate the same level of efficiency, it would mean a 747 would be able to fly from New York to London on just 2.8 litres of fuel in around eight minutes.” 

Johnson continues to explain that, by using new technology to apply simple techniques - like running data centres at higher temperatures, using virtualisation to better manage unused servers’ electricity drain, and improving the overall efficiency of modern CPUs - operators have managed to keep power demand in check. However, power consumption continues to creep up, particularly with the increasing use of data centre infrastructure to support AI and HPC workloads. 

One of the major issues, Johnson notes, is that the hyper-efficient design and operation practices found in state-of-the-art facilities aren’t economically feasible to adopt for operators across the board. “Therefore, short-term, tactical actions are needed that can provide immediate benefit, yielding significant energy savings in total power usage and cost,” he explains. “This can range from minimising idle IT equipment, virtualising servers and storage, managing CPU power usage and distributing power at different voltages.” 

Powering the future

As we enter 2021, the data centre industry has the potential to make huge strides towards reducing its carbon emissions. In addition to increasing efficiency and gaining better insights into power consumption, the industry is undergoing a generational transition towards renewable energy sources. 

David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres, notes that a great deal of progress towards renewables adoption has already been made in the UK market, with the trend set to gather even more momentum over the coming year. “Renewables are already widely used within the data centre industry, and this will increase further as the UK grid moves more towards renewable energy in the future,” he says. The increased use of renewable energy has the potential to even further drive down the carbon cost of operating digital infrastructure. According to Watkins, “The removal of fossil fuel powered equipment from the data centre would be the last stop on the road to a fully renewable future.” 

While the process of eliminating fossil fuels from data centres remains a long-term goal, continued increases in efficiency and the effectiveness of cooling and power systems are expected to continue having a pronounced impact on the short term. “As we enter a new year, we believe we will see the quest for efficiency go into overdrive. Adopting a life-cycle carbon footprint approach means that we are already moving away from a purely return-on-investment mindset to a culture of incremental efficiency and a Six-Sigma type commitment to driving down waste,” says Johnson. “By adopting a focused approach and investing in the most effective technologies to manage power consumption, data centre operators can make the most of the opportunities the ‘decade of data’ will bring and make every watt count.”


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