The location of the datacenter is determinant for its sustainability

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Power, connectivity, cooling technologies, environmental impact, long-term outlook… The choices you will need to make when building a sustainable datacenter are many and varied. You will need to put together your list of needs and requirements with the lens of sustainability guiding all your decisions. 

The first of these decisions is where to build the datacenter, because all its characteristics will be affected by the choice of its location: power source, water supply, availability of jobs, inclusion in the community and potential use, including proximity to users. 

With sustainability as the main criterion, the datacenter location decision can offer long-term benefits to the datacenter itself and business ROI. After all, sustainability and ROI improvement go hand in hand.

As stated earlier, other choices will be affected by the focus on sustainability. 

Power

Energy cost concerns are the same for a datacenter focusing on sustainability as for a traditional one. For example, a reliable power supply is an absolute requirement, regardless of how much energy efficiency you can achieve in your datacenter. 

Still, a commitment to sustainable infrastructure will require an in-depth study of renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, wind and biomass.

Of these five types of renewable energy, only the first two, hydroelectric and geothermal, are fully sustainable and capable of meeting the power needs of a data centre. But for any of these solutions, the ability to provide 100% of the required power with these methods will depend on the location of the datacenter site. 

Both solar and wind energy are used to supplement energy production as renewable sources.

Connectivity

A few special considerations need to be made for connectivity in a sustainable datacenter. Like any datacenter, the more connectivity options, the better. Facilities should allow you to be carrier-neutral with multiple ways to install fiber. 

The availability of dark fibre can also be an advantage, further expanding the range of options for datacenter users.

Cooling

If we were to examine just a single determining aspect for sustainable datacenter location, it would be cooling. While it would be great if all data centres could be in Iceland or somewhere near the Arctic Circle and cooling only involved opening the windows the right amount, the reality is that datacenters are in every country and keeping them at the appropriate temperature is often a considerable drain on energy and money.

The traditional cooling methodology for datacenters, the use of chillers, is logically coming to the end of its useful life. It is simply not efficient enough to continue to grow or be environmentally neutral. And since free air cooling is geographically limited, the logical choice for datacenter environmental control is liquid cooling, in its different flavours: from immersive cooling in mineral oil or specialized fluids to natural cooling with water.

When selecting a data centre site, you need to consider water availability. Given the importance of cooling and the future of sustainable data centres, this may be the most important concern in site selection. Becoming more energy efficient is not the solution if you take drinking water from communities already suffering from water shortages. Like it or not, your datacenter will be part of a community. And it would be best if you considered the needs and concerns of that community when selecting a site.

By focusing on sustainability when choosing your datacenter location, you demonstrate from the outset that your attention is on creating and deploying services that minimize any negative impact on the community, will be operated effectively and efficiently, and there is a clear corporate message about the importance of sustainability in the long-term operations of your organization. There is little debate that embedding this emphasis demonstrates strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments, especially as actions are far more powerful than words.

Metrics

Datacenters measure energy usage through an index called Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE). The energy you’re consuming to run your servers is counted as “one”; anything beyond that – like cooling infrastructure, security of building systems, general heating, etc – is added to the calculation. PUE averages 1.55 today, but newer installations achieve much better performance. 

In general, PUE is not a one-off, one-time measurement. Tracking the PUE over time for a single datacenter, will reveal how the facility is performing relative to the initial baseline.

Comparing PUE measurements across multiple datacenters, even in similar facilities, is also challenging, according to Vertiv. Two data centres, roughly the same size but in different locations (perhaps in other regions or even different countries), can easily consume power differently for some reason. For example, differences between local climate conditions, grid services and even the materials used to build the facility can impact energy use.

Also, what is considered by different datacenter teams to be relevant or material to their PUE calculation is not always the same. Teams must define how to classify subsystems, whether IT loads, infrastructure loads or irrelevant, and even consider whether mediation can be done.

Why is this important?

While datacenters have become much more sustainable in recent years, the exponential demand for data has made them among the biggest energy consumers in the world. They account for 1-1.5% of global energy consumption – equivalent to the aviation sector – and this is set to rise to 8% by 2030 if nothing is done. Datacenters in the EU account for 2.7% of the territory’s demand.

The electricity used for IT and cooling systems represent approximately 86% of the total energy consumption in a datacenter. Cooling alone can account for up to 40% of a data centre’s total energy consumption.

“A single hyper-scale facility consumes enough electricity to power up to 37,000 homes, and a data centre using evaporative cooling can use 3 to 5 million gallons of water every day – the equivalent of a city of 30,000 people,” says Peter Panfil of Vertiv. In making data centres more sustainable and environmentally friendly, strategies can be introduced to reduce water consumption.

By 2023, awareness of the need for sustainable data centres of all sizes will reach a critical point. Due to its role in 5G and IIoT, edge computing will require micro datacenters at a higher build volume than the hyper-scale construction we see today. Building them already with sustainability as a focus will be critical.

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