“I was able to join several of the #DCDEnergySmart 2020 presentations earlier this week. There was a lot of tremendous content on the programme, besides which it was great to have a little normality back during the COVID-19 lockdown!” said Paul Morrison, CCO at Hydro66 some 9 months ago. His observations and findings are still pretty accurate today. (updated March 2021).
One major issue relevant to the data center industry and the climate crisis stood out to me.
The sustainability argument about the level of data center contributions to global electricity use (and therefore some ideas on CO2 impact) rumbles on.
Global Data Center Electricity Use
This is a notoriously difficult question, as no global records exist, and factors like on-premise use by private companies are fairly opaque.
In The Blue Corner – Nothing to See Here?
In one camp researchers such as Eric Masanet and Arman Shehabi present the 200 TWh annual figure which is historically flat and predicted to be so for the next five years. This would put consumption at around 1% of global electricity.
Their argument is that increased compute power has been deployed at the expense of older inefficient IT being virtualized. Secondly, data centers are being upgraded to modern efficiency standards or replaced entirely by the move to cloud infrastructure. In effect Moore’s Law and hyperscalers have combined to keep TWh stable.
And In The Red Corner – Climate Alarm Bells
The other camp includes Swedish researcher Anders Andrae who suggests much higher figures in the 200 – 600 TWh range or greater than 2% of global electricity. And growing at 10% per annum, heading for 8 – 11% of global electricity by 2030.
Their argument is that record Year on Year server shipments to data centers don’t lie and that a declining Moores Law is at or near the end of usefully driving server efficiency. Further, and beyond Netflix, skyrocketing demand for AI, 5G, driverless cars etc will see data center demand for electricity continue to rise.
There is no easy answer to settle this debate as comprehensive global data is not collected.
Facts On the Ground
Data center intensive locations such as Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt are already raising warning signals about unrestrained development or even taking regulatory steps to slow down the growth of data center build out and maximise server efficiency standards.
The Ireland grid regulator is forecasting the mind-bending figure of 30% of their entire national grid capacity will be required to support data center growth by 2028. Elsewhere, commercial land prices with multi-MW power allocated are rising rapidly to match residential housing development values!
Uptime Institute – Taking a Holistic View Beyond Facilities and PUE
Therefore, it was very interesting to hear Dr Rabih Bashroush, Research Director for The Uptime Institute, speak on this subject at the #DCD Virtual Event.
The Uptime Institute is firmly in the 2%+ camp based on the arguments described above relating to server shipments, server efficiency and older DCs with high PUE not being phased out as quickly as the International Energy Agency thinks.
Further, they have research to back up their view that PUE improvements have stalled since 2013 at around the 1.65 value. In other words, expedient data center efficiencies have been made and the only realistic way to reduce data center carbon footprint is to radically improve IT efficiency. For example, in a study of 300 data centers, aging IT kit (older than five years) accounted for 66% of IT energy use but contributed just 7% of the compute capacity.
There were 3 major points from Rabih’s presentation:
1 – The grid utility must de-carbonise. Onsite-small scale renewable generation by data center operators is not happening in a significant way.
2 – PUE improvements have now reached diminishing returns and have flatlined at 1.1 for hyperscalers and 1.65 for on-premise or smaller scale colocation. The cheap and easier PUE improvements have been made without rethinking data center design or requiring major capex across the industry.
3 – Server efficiency has slowed, meaning large efficiency gains can now only be made by moving to larger colocation operators or the cloud.
- The cloud offers higher server utilisations factors, towards 40% preferably
- Compute workloads running on latest generation equipment and
- in ultra-low PUE data centers, towards 1.1 or lower
The Green Corner – What Can We Do
The report “Beyond PUE: Tackling IT’s Wasted Terawatts” from the Uptime Institute makes for extremely interesting reading. Uptime Institute is basically saying the right thing to do – environmentally at least – is migrate your IT load to cloud providers offering PUE 1.1 running on renewable energy and latest generation IT hardware. Simple right?
Identifying that the problem exists and our role in it is a first step. If we accept that data center build is growing at 10% or more per annum, and that we are going to require many more of them in the coming decade, where and how do we build them?
True sustainability requires a radical rethink beyond business-as-usual designs in the normal city centre locations.
Many companies have made significant public commitments to eliminating fossil fuels from their daily operations and supply chain.
Identifying a truly sustainable and transparent cloud and colocation infrastructure partner is the logical next step.