How to make datacenters more sustainable in the coming years

Technician examining server in big data center full of rack servers
Sheila Zabeu -

December 12, 2022

In the face of high energy costs and resource scarcity, sustainability has been an increasingly prominent topic at corporate board meetings. Leaders from IT and, in particular, Infrastructure and Operations (I&O) are under pressure to make datacenter operations more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.

Gartner recently presented some recommendations for datacenter operators to take more efficient steps toward greener environments in the coming years.

One is to avoid waste based on real-time integrity analysis to maximize the useful life of assets. Some datacenters have been able to extend infrastructure lifecycles from the 3 to 5 year range and from 5 to 7 years, helping to maximize OPEX cycles and reduce CAPEX investments linked to datacenter upgrades.

Overall, effective sustainability measures mean greater energy efficiency and optimized power consumption, so it is critical to identify where and how datacenter infrastructure can be optimized to consume less power without disrupting operations. Earlier this year, Gartner tracked estimated datacenter power usage by equipment type (PUE) and found that servers, cooling, and power systems used the most power. Given this, one might consider, for example, consolidating and removing unnecessary hardware, as decommissioning a single server can save $500 in energy, $500 in operating system licenses, and $1,500 in maintenance costs annually, according to the consultancy’s calculations.

More efficient cooling techniques can also be implemented, such as hot/cold aisle configuration, cooling using filtered free air, computational analysis of airflow dynamics, or liquid cooling technologies.

In making datacenters more sustainable and environmentally friendly, strategies can be introduced to reduce carbon footprint and water consumption and manage e-waste. Pathways to achieving these goals can be based on appropriate offsetting programs, circular economy projects for recycling materials, and recovering valuable and environmentally harmful materials.

Gartner comments that there is no universal standard for reporting progress on IT sustainability goals and that measurement frameworks vary by region, industry, and level of ambition. The institution recommends the following three steps to initiate environmental sustainability goals:

1. Create an essential sustainability baseline by aggregating and monitoring data such as server and storage system utilization, datacenter (or cloud service provider) energy efficiency (PUE), and the number of devices per employee.

2. Set specific, measurable targets for realistic carbon emissions or waste reduction numbers based on the organization’s data. It would be best if you never forgot that sustainable business is a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Optimise sustainability processes and partnerships by defining an accountability framework and formalizing policies for people, processes, technology, and business. On the people front, CIO and I&O leaders can promote the development of teams in sustainable practices. They can implement reuse and recycling policies at the technology level and define waste streams. At the business level, they can adopt SLAs with sustainable IT metrics, such as total energy spent per additional service level.

Trends in sustainable datacenters

Throughout 2022, the Data Center Knowledge website covered the initiatives for sustainable data centers and highlighted a list of the top ones.

Operators of significant infrastructure have been investing in “clean” energy as part of strategies to become carbon neutral. This trend is expected to continue into 2023. On a more innovative front, 2022 saw investment in immersion cooling projects, submerging servers, and other non-conductive liquid equipment to enable hyper-efficient cooling.

Another endeavor involves using hydrogen as a datacenter power source. The technology to make this happen on a large scale does not yet exist. Still, there have been successful proofs of concept showing that hydrogen cells can replace diesel generators in datacenter backup initiatives. While it is too early to get excited about this type of power source, sustainability advocates are more optimistic than ever.

And beyond energy consumption, 2022 has also witnessed a growing awareness of the role of water usage in the datacenter environment. However, there is a need to remain alert. Bloomberg reported that many of the world’s largest companies are declaring dizzying environmental progress on paper, gains that often do not materialize in practice. Other tech giants have also spoken out against a renewable energy project in the United States, which casts doubt on their commitment to datacenter sustainability.