Sustainable IT: energy efficient data centers

Environmentally compatible and sustainable IT has become a key issue for companies in the light of climate change. There is a lot of talk about energy-efficient data centers with optimized cooling, the use of renewable energies, and sustainability standards in the supply chain. But using the cloud can also pay off when it comes to enhancing your IT sustainability.

There are two sides to digital technologies: On the one hand, they enable more efficient processes, savings through automation, better customer service, more flexible work and the establishment of new data-based business models. On the other hand, however, they increase the demand for resources and raw materials needed to process mountains of data and produce ever more IT hardware, such as servers, notebooks, smartphones or displays.


Data center energy consumption continues to rise

Streaming videos, cloud applications, sensor data from industrial plants or concepts such as autonomous driving ensure that the volume of data will continue to grow in the future as a result of digitalization. The problem is that the data centers that process this mountain of data consume a lot of energy and generate climate-damaging CO2. According to the EU Commission, the IT industry is now responsible for around three percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU – and the trend is rising. According to a press release from the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability, data centers in Germany alone consumed around 16 terawatt hours of electrical energy in 2020. This corresponds to about 3.4 percent of total net electricity consumption in Germany.

In 2018, the energy consumption of data centers in the EU amounted to 76.8 TWh. This figure is expected to rise to 98.52 TWh by 2030, an increase of 28%. (Source: EU Commission)

Sustainable IT is in demand

It is thus clear what companies and the IT industry have to do: they must focus on sustainability, take a more climate-friendly approach to work and significantly reduce their CO2 emissions to ensure that the planet remains livable for future generations. In their top 10 forecasts for IT decision-makers, the market researchers at IDC predict that 55 percent of CIOs in the world’s 2,000 largest listed companies will have to implement sustainable IT by 2023. According to IDC, this includes embedding environmental, social and governance processes into the technology lifecycle, from acquisition to sale.

Given the currently very high energy prices and rising CO2 taxes, companies should focus on sustainable IT from not only environmental but also business reasons. “Green IT” also has a positive effect on a company’s image. Ecological and social aspects are playing an increasingly important role in consumers’ purchasing decisions. This is shown, for example, by Forrester’s European Predictions 2022 survey. The majority of consumers in the survey stated that they are more likely to purchase products from a supplier whose values correspond to their own.

Companies therefore need to take a holistic approach to sustainable IT that considers all processes, from procurement and use to recycling and disposal of IT. The goal is the leanest possible IT and supply chain infrastructure that conserves resources and significantly reduces energy consumption. This includes taking measures to improve data center energy efficiency as well as using alternative energy sources or cloud applications.

Better data center energy efficiency

Increasing energy efficiency is the most effective way to combat high power consumption and rising costs while improving the data center carbon footprint. The goal is to optimize the existing IT and building infrastructure to achieve maximum performance with minimum resources. Components such as servers, storage modules, the network or the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) generally account for about 25 percent of energy consumption. On average, another 25 percent of the energy is consumed to cool data centers down to room temperature.

PUE value for data centers

The most important measure of energy efficiency is the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) industry standard defined by The Green Grid organization. The value measures the percentage of energy actually converted into computing power. PUE is the ratio of the total energy used in the data center (total facility power consumption) to the energy consumed by the IT equipment (IT equipment power consumption).

The latter describes the power consumption of all IT devices in the data center, i.e. servers and other computers, storage and network systems, switches, monitors and other peripheral and telecommunications devices. In addition to the IT’s direct power consumption, total facility power also takes into account power costs for the infrastructure that supports IT operations. This includes systems such as UPSs, switchgear, batteries, cooling systems, pumps, lighting, etc.

The closer the PUE value is to the ideal value of 1.0, the more energy efficient the data center is. At plusserver the PUE value is currently 1.35.

Sustainable IT: Concrete measures

But how can data center energy efficiency be improved? Here are several possible measures:

Optimized air conditioning

The biggest parameter for improving energy efficiency is to optimize air conditioning in the server rooms. There are several ways to do so. One simple measure is the strict separation of cold and warm air, i.e. optimized air routing in the data center. This allows the fan speed of the recirculating air coolers to be minimized and electricity to be saved. The recirculating air cooler draws in warm air, cools it and blows it into the cold aisle at the appropriate temperature. Another approach is to raise the room temperature or blow-in temperature in the data center’s cold aisle. This measure shortens the time for forced cooling and extends the time for free cooling via ambient air, which is why many cloud providers are now building their data centers in northern, rather cool regions such as the Scandinavian countries. Forced cooling is not necessary in arctic regions. However, even companies that want to have their servers in their own country do not have to give up on sustainable IT. The climate also permits operation without air conditioning in Germany for several months a year.

Intelligent power management

Modern control systems ensure that cooling system performance is adapted to the needs of the IT systems. So if the servers are running at full speed, the cooling system is also working at a high level. It then lowers its output when the processors have less to do, thus reducing power consumption.

Better use of waste heat

A good way to save energy is to use the waste heat from data centers to heat offices or supply hot water (cogeneration).


Power-saving components

Modern hardware components such as power supply units, storage, network components or server processors are now designed to reduce consumption and come with sophisticated power-saving functions. For example, clock frequency and processor voltage drop automatically when programs are not utilizing the full computing power. Since the processors also emit less heat, air conditioning costs are reduced.

Sustainable energy sources

When the electricity for servers and air conditioning comes from renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics or wind power, the ecological fingerprint of data centers improves significantly.

Realizing sustainable IT with the cloud

The cloud, too, can help companies operate in a way that is both sustainable and commercially viable. Companies can leverage flexible and scalable cloud services to respond quickly to changing requirements. Take the coronavirus pandemic, for example: companies quickly switched to cloud-based collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Workspace to allow employees to access corporate applications from their home-based offices. The trend toward location-independent work is expected to continue, thus reducing both CO2 emissions from employees commuting to work and the number of business trips. Optimized digital processes, such as the automated sending of invoices by e-mail, mean that employees can use less paper and thus avoid wasting resources.

Although cloud data centers of course also consume energy, leading cloud providers have committed to further improving their energy efficiency and systematically transitioning to renewable energy. They are also investing in up-to-date, energy-saving systems and IT components as well as optimized cooling, while the self-operated data centers of many German companies often still operate outdated hardware.

Furthermore, the virtualization technology behind cloud computing resources enables much more flexible use of physical IT resources. Instead of maintaining one dedicated and usually underutilized server per customer, IT resources in cloud data centers are distributed across different customers and the utilization of each individual hardware component is optimized. Whatever is not needed can be switched off automatically.

Companies can thus benefit doubly by switching to the cloud: thanks to the on-demand principle, they only use the exact amount of cloud computing resources they actually need at any given time, and these resources are operated as efficiently as possible. According to Microsoft, using cloud services saves up to 93 percent energy and generates 98 percent less CO2 emissions compared to a traditional data center.

Learn more about sustainability at plusserver or get personal advice on your sustainable cloud now.

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