Grant Powell MBCS spoke to Stephen Bowes-Phipps MBCS, VP of data centres and cloud at State Street, about data centre evolution, the impact of AI and the ongoing quest for sustainability.

Data centres are critically important to all our lives. At the heart of any popular service, application or digital product you’ll find one or more. And, as AI grows in popularity and prevalence, so data centres are become ever more critical.

These often colossal spaces, packed with computers and cooled by clever systems are however huge users of energy. As you read on we’ll explore how simple design changes, code improvements and adjustments to attitudes in IT can all contribute to make data centres run greener and leaner.

Can you provide some information about your background and expertise?

I've been working in the industry for around 35 years. My first ever job was managing a data centre, but I didn't know it then - it was just called a computer room and had an ICL Mainframe in it. But, in a funny way that set the scene for the rest of my career. I’ve spent a lot of my time in and around data centres, managing them mostly, but in later years also working in consultancy to help other people run them more efficiently and more effectively.

Does being an IT professional give you a certain perspective on data centre operations?

The data centre industry is one that is predominantly led by engineers. I don't come from an engineering background so have always thought in terms of the IT, and I think this has given me a real advantage. Engineers like to build things with a good degree of additional capacity to prevent failure, whereas in IT we are always trying to make something more efficient. I’ve always been well aware that data centres exist purely because of IT, and I think we desperately need more people from the IT side to come in to the data centre field and provide that IT perspective to keep driving innovation.

What are the key challenges that companies face around effective management of data and IT resources?

For many businesses, managing their IT estate or facilities estate does not come easy, simply because it is not their core business. Their main area of expertise might be finance, for example, and while they would be highly knowledgeable about banking, they can’t also be expected to know the best way to manage their IT estate. So it's a fascinating space to work in because you can really help businesses better understand their IT provision and how to get the most from their systems, services and data. From here we can also begin to look at ways to help companies reduce their carbon footprint in relation to IT.

With businesses now utilising cloud-based services and storage, what has been the impact on data centres from a sustainability perspective?

Data centres really started to become much more sustainable back in the mid-2000s. That was when chipset speeds began to increase. But, the faster the chip, the more heat is given out. While it's important to protect equipment from overheating, excessive cooling can lead to data centres using far more energy than is necessary. The focus therefore becomes about how to run an effective data centre that is also efficient. It is important to note that the cloud is not necessarily more efficient than elsewhere – it depends on the infrastructure, the IT architectures and the workloads that need to run on them. However, reducing our reliance on the need to run HVAC condensers to provide cooling, is a smart move. Similarly, making use of excess heat energy to warm business and public premises is also a fantastic concept.

What guidance or legislation is in place to support data centre management?

The EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) has become the global standard when it comes to optimising data centre use for maximum efficiency. It has become part of the European Standard EN50600 and features prominently in new European regulations around efficiency reporting. It contains excellent guidance on best practice facility infrastructure (mechanical and electrical), IT technologies and operations. From an IT perspective, we’re still pushing for greater efficiencies. The Covid-19 pandemic helped create greater awareness about the role of data centres and the need to ensure they run smarter and greener. Governments have certainly taken a greater interest in supporting and regulating data centres as they realise that they were effectively propping up economies and enabling social cohesion around the world.

Will there be a significant impact on data centre operations as a result of AI?

We’ve been advocating the use of data centres for a long time based on the fact that they are improving our carbon footprint by taking a lot of legacy paper-based processes and turning them into digital services. But we have now come to a point in technology terms where large language model AI systems, which are going to crunch huge amounts of data to support our way of life in the 21st Century, will require their own data centres. The result is that data centres specialists are currently having lengthy discussions about how to determine requirements, exactly what might be involved, and the ongoing impact of this additional demand on a global scale.

Will the rise of AI have an effect on the data centre’s ability to be sustainable?

A year ago, if you’d asked me about data centre sustainability and energy use concerns, I would have said that the industry is doing great things. But now, AI systems have entered the arena, and with major search engines now utilising AI to boost their capabilities, even the carbon footprint of a single search has expanded significantly. While there is much hope that AI will be game changing, helping us design and build a world that is greener and more efficient, based on robotics, the IoT, machine learning etc, it is the vast drain on resources and impact on the environment that is concerning. Having said this, it will be interesting to see where we are in another year’s time.

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Looking forward, how can companies ensure more effective management of their IT estate?

One thing that would make a significant difference is for businesses to look holistically at their resilience and redundancy strategies. There are key questions to ask such as: Is a service essential or a ‘nice to have’? What Tier-level of protection is required? Working in the financial sector it’s absolutely imperative that we invest in critical systems. We simply cannot afford for them to fail due to the incredible disruption this would cause. But, if you’re an organisation which is paying significant amounts of money for the uptime of a system that’s purely used for booking meeting rooms, then you might want to consider the implications of continuing to do so.

How important is system age and configuration to efficient performance?

Recent research suggests that some of the latest servers are actually more ineffective at running certain types of compute workload than those that are 5 or 6 years old. Proper configuration, rather than a focus solely on the age of a chipset, is fundamental. This then raises the issue of whether companies should be updating their equipment quite so frequently, when equipment that is written off after 2 or 3 years might actually be effective for 7 or 8 years. But lack of manufacturer support makes companies wary. Customers really need to pressure manufacturers to extend the life of chipsets. This also helps, from an environmental perspective, to eliminate the waste caused by decommissioning systems too early. Some of the most efficient client systems that we see installed within data centres are actually those that are left for longer periods of time with minimal tweaks and changes.

Finally, what simple changes can be made to ensure that the next generation of IT professionals can make a real difference to the industry?

It might sound simple but greener coding, taught at schools, colleges and universities, would make a huge impact. There are so many poorly coded apps and programs out there nowadays that are constantly crashing, hugely ineffective or that draw way too much power. If students understood the impact of poor coding they would enter the industry with the correct mindset; that even the smallest changes here and there, and a genuine passion and care for what they are doing, can make a huge difference. And from a data centre perspective, IT needs to fix its own house. The engineers have done a pretty good job up until now, but we need to do better.