Efficient by design: The data center evolution

Businesses must identify and implement technologies and practices that aid DC infrastructure to operate, be maintained, and refurbished easily – allowing a smarter, and cleaner way of consuming energy and water.

Over the past few years, the DC space has been witnessing unprecedented growth owing to evolving work patterns and accelerated digitalization of processes.

Data center (DC) energy consumption is much higher than standard office spaces – often targeting them for energy-efficient design measures. Short design cycles often leave limited time to explore complete design opportunities versus life-cycle-cost issues.

Historically, DC designs have simply been envisioned as ‘scaled-up’ offices space, paying little regard to viable design practices that boost efficiencies.

Over the past few years, the DC space has been witnessing unprecedented growth owing to evolving work patterns and accelerated digitalization of processes. However, DCs are carbon-intensive set-ups primarily due to their higher energy consumption levels. While tech evolution, supported by policy instruments, is gunning to neutralize these environmental impacts, large-scale implementation is still running at a slow pace.

In 2016, it was reported that the world’s DC electricity consumption was over 416.2 terawatt-hours; at 3% of the global electricity supply and 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions, DCs have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry! This by 2040, is set to create 14% of the world’s emissions.

Current scenario

Data center facilities rarely achieve the operational and capacity requirements specified in their initial designs. With more organizations adopting a digital-first business approach, there is a significant uptake in DC infrastructure – leading to substantial incremental power and cooling capacity, changes in operational procedures; and potential changes to infrastructure design to cater to regulations.

The golden rule of DC infrastructure design is flexibility and scalability. This encompasses key principles such as site location, building selection, floor layout, electrical system design, mechanical design, and the concept of modularity that enables the facility to evolve and adapt – with minimum dependencies on renovation.

Depending on the acquisition strategy of a new data center (that is, build, buy, lease or sublease), the infrastructure design intricacies may vary. From a global perspective, businesses, and policymakers have now started to take steps to mitigate the environmental impact of data centers (from inception) – with measurable targets such as purchasing carbon-free energy, water conservation, reuse and repair of servers, and heat recycling.

While these are welcomed initiates, the launch of 5G, expanding IoT ecosystem, and a thriving cryptocurrency market will only compound the problem. What’s in turn needed in establishing proactive sustainability and efficiency measures at inception. Businesses must identify and implement technologies and practices that aid DC infrastructure to operate, be maintained, and refurbished easily – allowing a smarter, and cleaner way of consuming energy and water.

What’s needed

In recent years, environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have risen on the corporate agenda. The pressure to adapt business models to address these concerns is greater than ever. Above all, this includes the ambitious environmental goal of stopping the rise in global temperatures. 

When companies evaluate digital transformation in relation to ESG initiatives, both developers and services are looking for clean energy solutions. Vendors seeking to meet their customers’ environmental standards or their own carbon-neutral goals, aim to reduce their reliance on traditional carbon-intensive fossil fuels by providing their businesses with clean, affordable energy. 

Many digital transformations are aligned with the idea of ​​a non-low carbon circular economy, which relies on data centers to run workloads and store information. In the transition to the circular economy, the data center industry requires eliminating waste and pollution from the process and extending the life of products and materials. This change can be achieved by switching to green and renewable energy sources, reusing excess heat, rethinking how data centers are designed and managed – from inception to end-of-life disposal.

While a host of mandatory and voluntary sustainability and corporate responsibility tools and certification are in operation around the world, there’s a genuine need for commitment toward ESG responsibility. Technology and innovation increasingly make sense for operationally and economic viability for businesses and operators.

Well-thought-out implementations can unlock cost savings, optimized energy usage, and improved reliability and facility operations. Some of these sustainable recommendations include:

Geographical location: Identification of location for a data center is one of the key strategies in efficient operation. Long term aspects including future expansion, upgradation of existing tech including servers, HVAC, battery storage etc. need to be considered to determine the longevity of the facility. The key factors impacting operations shall also be considered which include availability of uninterrupted as well as renewable power, availability of fresh/recycled water, climatic conditions, fuel provision etc.

Flexibility: Modular approach must be taken for the design of the data center to ensure multi-Tier availability standards for different server halls. This will prevent over engineering, especially for data centers that are built for collocation services.

Combining Data analytics and AI (Artificial Intelligence): As per Uptime institute Global survey 2020, Data centers in Asia Pacific regions have average PUE of 1.69. Data analytics can model facilities to identify as well as quantify energy reduction opportunities and created an automated response to manage systems optimally. IT power consumption could vary significantly during the day, week, and month as well as during the year. This can lead to capital upgrades that will eventually help to reduce PUE less than 1.4 or even lesser. Besides optimizing operations, data analytics can also help in sustainability reporting. Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has mandated BRSR (Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report) from financial year FY22-23.

Cooling technologies:  Air Cooled systems are widely adopted across Indian Data centers as a part of cooling systems. The cooling systems must be selected/ designed with highest efficiency as per energy standards defined by ASHRAE 90.4 standards. A combination of Air and Water-cooled chillers can also be evaluated to bring down the Cooling energy consumption. Water cooled systems must be selected if raw/recycled water availability on site is not a constraint. As published by Uptime Institute June 2016, conventional water-based chillers contribute to evaporation loss of 6.75 million gallons of water annually, for every 1 MW IT load. Newer water-cooled alternatives which involve closed loop system can also be implemented for reduction of water evaporation loss.

Renewable energy:  Though onsite renewable energy generation viz. Solar and Wind may not be possible at all locations due to onsite space constraints, alternatives like Renewable Power Purchase Agreement, wheeling renewable energy from the electricity provider etc. could be explored. Drafting of a renewable energy implementation roadmap at the inception phase of Data center will go a long way in meeting sustainability objectives and a positive step towards carbon neutrality.

E-waste disposal: Though e-waste management is very much part of the operational phase, ‘Cradle to Grave’ OR ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach must be envisaged while selection of new IT equipment. Besides batteries and IT equipment, there are many electrical items that data centers use with varying useful life period. Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate change has gazetted e-waste management rules in 2016 which needs to be mandatory adhered for electronic and electrical waste.

As we move forward, ESG compliance is likely to play an increasingly important role in helping data center operators attract and retain quality tenants. Similarly, investors are demonstrating a stronger emphasis on ESG compliance across all regions. 

While data centers may not be investors’ immediate focus, we can expect ‘green’ standards to emerge as a key investment criterion. Hence it is essential that operators have access to the right expertise, strategic goals, bold key performance indicators (KPIs), and ESG framework to offer competitive imperatives that are now shaping data center business strategies.

(By Prashant Goyal, Director – Data Center Solutions, Advisory and Transactions Services, CBRE India)

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