Why reliability, responsibility and resilience in data centre strategies are intrinsically linked, writes David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

It’s no secret that taking responsibility for your environmental impact has become a crucial business imperative. Not only is ensuring sustainability the right thing to do – not least in the power-intensive data centre industry – it also leads to efficiencies, cost savings and shores up competitive advantage as organisations increasingly want to do business with sustainable partners.

Indeed, as the demand for interconnected services has increased exponentially in recent years, and the power we consume as an industry has increased, it’s only right that sustainability now sits at the top of the data centre industry’s agenda.

As a result, organisations in the industry are working hard to demonstrate their sustainability credentials, with many cloud platforms and data centre operators committed to becoming climate neutral by 2030.

The good news is that progress is already being made, particularly in the area of renewable energy use which has surpassed fossil fuels worldwide as the main source of new electricity generation, the latest report from the International Energy Agency has found.

However, there is work to be done still and a number of issues to be navigated before true success can be realised; not least the need to earn the trust of businesses who are sceptical about ‘green washing’.

Let’s look at how can data centre providers can get it right and what’s in it for them if they do.

An holistic approach is required to data centres

It’s a hard truth is that the data centre industry simply isn’t going to achieve true sustainability by relying on developments in technology and tweaking what is being done now. A more holistic approach is needed which considers sustainability at every point of the data centre lifecycle – from design, to build, to operation and maintenance. Indeed, reducing a facility’s carbon footprint starts at design and construction.

Data centres use enormous amounts of concrete and steel, which are major sources of CO2, and as the sustainability gains from operational efficiencies dry up, providers will have to look to embodied carbon in the construction phase if they are serious about being climate neutral. As an industry, we must commit to using low carbon materials, to streamline the delivery process and minimise consumption of new resources.

There is also room to look outside of our comfort zone when it comes to reducing emissions. Currently, many data centre operators are focused firmly on tackling Scope 1 carbon emissions, generated directly from their own operations, as well as Scope 2 emissions, which come from the production of electricity they purchase and use.

However, whilst this represents progress, greater efficiencies can be realised by targeting Scope 3 emissions – or ‘value chain emissions’, generated from partners and suppliers. So, it’s crucial that as an industry, we look at our supply chain in its entirety, and demand the same rigorous green credentials from partners and suppliers as our customers demand from us.

Our approach must look closely at what happens to equipment at the end of its life. There’s already a commitment to ‘get more life’ from data centre equipment; for example, when an asset requires replacing, savvy providers will assess whether refurbished parts can be used to renew and repair it instead.

Recycling forms a big part of data centres’ sustainability strategies too – whether that’s distributing equipment no longer needed on the secondary market, or ensuring it’s disposed of effectively at the end of its life.

A look at the ‘three Rs’

The strategy that is needed is an approach that works hard to marry the ‘Three Rs’: Reliability with Resilience and Responsibility.

There has been plenty of commentary in recent months about the challenge that data centre providers face in achieving sustainability goals whilst simultaneously ensuring the highest quality reliability and resilience. But can data centre companies really do both – provide the most reliable service whilst being sustainable?

Fortunately, these commitments actually go hand-in-hand. A sustainable data centre is often a high performing and reliable facility. Renewable energy sources are fast becoming seen as more reliable than fossil fuels – not least, because renewable energy is not reliant on a single source, but from several such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass.

Renewable energy is also relatively free from the fluctuations of the international oil market and more resilient in cases of falling demand and economic decline, all of which are crucial as we traverse through an uncertain political and economic landscape.

Another great example of performance and sustainability being intrinsically linked is within the cooling of a data centre. There has been plenty of innovation happening in this arena, and the good news is that energy efficient methods of cooling, such as harnessing indirect adiabatic and evaporative cooling technology, are both more sustainable and more efficient than many older methods.

There have however, also been efficiency improvements with older methods resulting in improved performance without the water consumption of adiabatic systems. This has led to the availability of solutions that are suitable for all climate regions around the globe.

A commitment to building trust

Like so many industries, the data centre market has been blighted by claims of greenwashing; a PR tactic used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly, without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact.

Companies that ‘greenwash’ are guilty of making bold claims, invoking nature-inspired imagery or using green buzzwords that rarely hold up when looked at in more depth. Or they make vague claims and ‘green’ solutions that misdirect you and take you away from the real issues and are lacking substance.

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This means that one of the main challenges to true sustainability has been transparency and the ability to demonstrate to users and customers that data centre providers are keeping their promises when it comes to meeting green obligations. It’s perhaps no surprise that the most forward-looking data centre providers are prioritising the ability to prove and substantiate their green credentials.

One good way of being publicly accountable is to obtain certifications, providing a third-party verification of sustainability credentials. Building Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method (or BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) are both sustainability rating schemes for the built environment, whilst also looking at the lifecycle of a building, from the concept and design to construction, operation and maintenance.

Standards can also be helpful in the pursuit of transparency and accountability; specifically ISO 50001 for Energy Management and ISO 14001 for Environmental Management. These standards provide a clear framework, allowing providers to thoroughly interrogate their effectiveness against green ambitions on an ongoing basis.

SS 564 is another standard. This one allows providers to assess the energy efficiency of their data centre and provides a recognised framework as well as a logical and consistent methodology to achieve continuous improvement for their facilities.

Tackling the challenge of more and more data

The journey to sustainability won’t be easy, particularly for notoriously power hungry data centres, and, with some analysts estimating that the global data load will rise to a staggering 572 Zettabytes (ZB) – around 10 times more than today – the challenge for providers to deliver more capacity of always-on connectivity together with true sustainability is only going to get tougher.

But undoubtedly, it’s essential to get it right. It’s not hyperbole to say that the future of the planet is at risk if we don’t adopt greener, more sustainable systems and practices. 2021 was the fifth hottest year on record and climate change demands attention and action from all of us, particularly as we consume ever increasing amounts of energy.

Data centre providers have a real opportunity to drive change and to lead by example, showing other sectors that by harnessing the brightest minds and cutting-edge technology, it is possible to ‘green’ even the most power intensive industry.

By sourcing the most sustainable materials and technologies for designing and maintaining these energy-intensive hubs, providers are able to run their data centres in a smart and clean way, ensuring that their impact on the environment is minimised as data consumption continues to thrive, but maintain responsibility, reliability and resilience.

Going green is good for business

There are numerous benefits to getting it right – not least in the realm of cost savings. Indeed, whilst short term costs associated with sustainability initiatives often worry providers, one only needs to look at the potential cost savings of doing business more sustainably and therefore more efficiently to see that long term cost savings are certainly possible. In short, being green isn’t just good for the environment – it’s good for business too.

Committing to a green agenda is obviously a step in the right direction for any organisation but, to become truly sustainable, data centre providers need to ensure energy efficiency is at the heart of every aspect of how a data centre is run. ‘Tweaks’ simply aren’t enough – an holistic approach is required which considers every stage of a data centre’s journey – from planning and design, to construction through to maintenance and operation of facilities to what happens to equipment at the end of its life.