As we start to look to the year ahead, predictions about CIO priorities in 2021 are beginning to emerge, writes David Watkins, solutions director at VIRTUS data centres. Watkins argues that a green strategy should be discussed around every boardroom table.

The top performing organisations have already developed the capabilities to use digital technologies to create deeper relationships with customers and empower employees. The investment is certainly paying off. However, while most companies focus on the front-end interactions, what is often overlooked is the importance of the infrastructure behind trends like remote working and digital transformation.

Creating a safe and efficient data infrastructure

The world is now connected through a sophisticated infrastructure of networks that is able to deliver data in real time. When more data is being transferred simultaneously online, a fast, robust, secure infrastructure is required to carry the workload. This means that behind any digital service is a data centre and behind any digital endeavour, there must be a robust data centre strategy.

In order to fully benefit from digital technology, survive however many lockdowns we have and enable ongoing remote working, the data centre must be front and centre of CIO priorities for 2021. Along with any data centre strategy, comes significant environmental concerns.

Cleaner and greener ways to work

Recent reports predict that by 2040, storing digital data is likely to create 14% of the world’s emissions - that’s around the same proportion of emissions that the US creates today - while the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for 3.2% of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025. That’s while consuming no less than a fifth of global electricity.

As CIOs endeavour to build and maintain green strategies in other areas of their business, every year, millions of data centres worldwide are purging metric tons of hardware, draining country-sized amounts of electricity and are generating carbon emissions as big as the global airline industry.

How then, do CIOs get it right? How can they build a robust data centre strategy that will power their digital transformation ambitions, but also maintain their hard-fought green credentials?

Find the right partner

While data centres are power hungry, it’s still more efficient to centralise IT resources in modern data centres than to build on-premise solutions. It must also be recognised that the industry has made huge leaps in efficiencies from the legacy data centres of years past. 

These positive changes are being driven at many levels. Society is demanding that everyone takes responsibility for their own actions which could be detrimental to the environment. Governments are also demanding more efficient, sustainable, environmentally-considerate data centres and customers are demanding that their providers are committed to sustainability and green energy solutions. In addition, the data centre industry itself, is changing from within.

However, not all providers are created equal. There are different ‘shades of green’ when it comes to sustainability. It’s crucial for CIOs to look carefully at their data centre partner to ensure they’re meeting their environmental commitments. Look in more detail at those data centres claiming green credentials - are they only carbon neutral? That isn’t as sustainable as carbon zero.

Can data centre strategy take the heat?

One of the most difficult areas to account for, is the energy consumed and heat generated by data centre facilities. The constantly processing computers and servers that make life online possible have long been considered detrimental to the environment. An added complication is that many businesses have exacting corporate and social responsibility targets, some of which include their outsourced data centre power consumption and carbon emissions - the calculations of which are included in their own carbon footprint. In short, companies need to know if their data centres are powered by renewable energy sources.

As a result, how much power is used and energy sources are often under the spotlight. The most visible step that data centre operators can take to become greener is in a move away from fossil fuels. Data centres are particularly well placed to benefit from renewable energy sources due to their stable power consumption. In fact, some operators are already achieving 100% renewable energy in their buildings, resulting in lower emissions of carbon and other types of pollution, as well as significant cost efficiencies.

But the good news is that today, the cost of renewable green power is increasingly cheaper than ‘brown’ power. Buyers can negotiate long-term fixed-price or stable-price contracts for energy. This means energy costs from companies using renewables are likely to be more stable and offer more reliably priced than fossil fuels - reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.

Renewable energy is - and will continue to be - an important part of the strategy to reduce carbon emissions. But the most committed providers are not just focused on discrete initiatives, rather they are committed to delivering a ‘cradle to grave’ green strategy, where environmental ambitions are built into every step of data centre construction and maintenance. 

Setting a place for BREEAM

When it comes to the building itself, BREEAM (building research establishment environmental assessment method) standards look at the green credentials of commercial buildings; verifying their performance and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks. BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of categories, ranging from energy to ecology.

Each of these categories addresses the most influential factors, including:

  • low impact design and carbon emissions reduction;
  • design durability and resilience;
  • adaptation to climate change;
  • ecological value and biodiversity protection.

As well as the commitment to BREEAM specifications, many providers also employ a modular build methodology to deploy capacity as and when required. This drives up utilisation and maximises efficiency (both from an operational and cost perspective).

Plant management best practices CIOs should look for include implementing evaporative cooling; indirect heat exchangers; rainwater harvesting and air handling units. These methods not only improve the operational sustainability of the data centre, they also reduce the site’s dependence upon local distribution networks.

There are plenty of examples of operators’ innovative work in these fields. For example, Facebook invented a system called Autoscale in 2014, which reduces the number of servers that need to be on during low-traffic hours, leading to power savings of around 15%. Some companies have turned to AI to optimise their internal cooling systems by matching weather and operational conditions, reducing cooling energy usage by almost 40%.

The strategic impetus to get it right

Looking for a responsible operator with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability is not just the right thing to do, it can actually deliver commercial benefits for those who do it well.

Perhaps the clearest return on investment for companies that invest in data centre sustainability strategies is in cost savings. Green no longer means more expensive - tax breaks, incentives and diminishing costs for renewable energy all mean that it’s more affordable (and even more cost effective) to be green. Not only can environmentally sound strategies save money, they could be the difference between surviving or failing in an economic crisis.

However, there are more than just cost savings at stake. In the short term, CIOs who can boast a sustainability strategy which extends way beyond their office equipment to critical partnerships like data centres, can enjoy immediate wins. They can deliver on government mandates to become greener (the government says that the data centre industry can - and should – be carbon neutral by 2023) and also meet the sustainability demands of their customers. 

Looking at the personalities within an organisation, many believe that the CIO is ideally positioned to work on corporate sustainability initiatives. The CIO already works with every department within a corporation and understands how to optimise the business processes that make the organisation work. IT is tasked with eliminating waste and inefficiency within these everyday processes and, in turn, can work to eliminate waste and inefficiency in energy and resource use.

The broader view

Technology such as online portals, video conferencing and remote access make telecommuting feasible and reduce the need for business travel; thus minimising the company's carbon footprint. Efficient use of technology can also dramatically reduce the use of paper, which is both costly and a drain on staff time. This broader view of green IT goes far beyond data centre operations. By leveraging IT capabilities to streamline business processes and reduce waste, it can deliver maximum environmental and cost-reduction benefits.

Everything with ‘smart’ in front of it has a data centre behind it, which means that data centre management can no longer be seen as an ‘IT issue’. Elevating the data centre (and the environmental impact of data centre providers) to the board room, will be crucial to making the digital economy work.

Helping to ensure that the internet, data use and smart technologies aren’t negatively impacting on the environment is a crucial tenet of supporting a more sustainable world for the long-term. A connected planet, where remote working and e-commerce are the norm and public services are delivered online, is likely to help reduce pollution significantly. Looking at the data centre is now a boardroom issue - and one which is going to be critical to the CIO and their executive counterparts in 2021 and beyond.