Data centre efficiency: Go green or go home

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From Facebook to Twitter, mobile phones to self-driving cars, smart meters to IoT sensors, data is being generated at an exponential rate. In turn, data centers are fast becoming one of the largest energy users in the world. In 2015, data centers used 3 per cent of all energy generated in the world and produced 2 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Usage will undoubtedly continue to increase, with some analysts predicting that the amount of energy used will double as quickly as every four years.

Although crucial, the prospect of ‘going green’ can seem daunting, expensive and complicated. But with the regular emergence of new legislation insisting that companies become more responsible with their energy usage, this topic cannot be avoided and data centers must be proactive in reducing wastage.

Adding to the ‘green’ element, power is often the biggest cost factor for data centre operators, so they can really not afford not to have energy efficiency on their radar screen.

So, how can we do this? Here are my five top tips:

Knowledge is power (literally)

How well do you know your data center? While this may seem like an obvious question, I regularly encounter managers who are unable to get into the nitty gritty.

Before putting steps in place to improve efficiency, you must thoroughly assess your current standing. Do you know your data center inside out? What is your current power usage effectiveness? How much are you spending on energy? 

Do an inventory, have a sweep of your current equipment and measure efficiency levels. Once you have a good idea of what is going on, you can get rid of anything that is no longer efficient and consciously look into other options that can help.

Also, it’s just as important to be clued-up on the industry as a whole. What are your competitors doing? What equipment or method is becoming obsolete? Which innovative developments are appearing in the wider ecosystem? 

Having a comprehensive understanding of both your equipment and the industry is essential before looking at the practicalities behind energy efficiency initiatives.

Think carefully about location

Last year the world’s data centers consumed around 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity. A large proportion of that energy is spent running cooling systems. One way of reducing this from the outset is to build any future data centers above the 45th parallel (the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole). 

This avoids areas with hot summers, thereby naturally reducing the need for cooling. A temperate climate, even during summer months, can offer cool air that could cut 30 per cent of the heat of server components.

Companies such as Microsoft are already making the most of naturally cooler environments with underwater data centers and Facebook has built a facility near the Arctic Circle to save on cooling costs.

That being said, be aware - it may not be as simple as building a data center at the North Pole! In the planning stages, factor in time and resources to conduct thorough research into locations. Although a geographical relocation could reduce your cooling bill dramatically, getting power to it may be costly or impractical.

Consider other ways to stay cool

If you’re not able to up and move to the Arctic Circle to save on cooling costs, have no fear – relocation is far from the only solution. Many data centers are fitted with ineffective air conditioning units that are expensive to purchase, run and maintain. Just changing this traditional cooling system can generate savings.

Outside air and the optimization of air flow is one method used by some data centers to carry heat away from servers, particularly in countries with more temperate climates. Even more efficient than this, and a technique we use at OVH, is water cooling.

Liquid cooling runs through the data center and over the servers in order to cool the processors. The liquid is carried by heat exchangers positioned on top of processors and any other components that emit a lot of heat. 

Water has a greater heat carrying capacity than air, making it a more effective way of cooling servers and removing up to 70 per cent of heat generated by servers.

By solely using variable frequency fans and water pumps, data centers can cut electricity usage in half. Although air conditioning might seem like the easiest option, it may be worth putting in the time and money investment and consider a more environmentally friendly, sustainable solution.

Never underestimate the power of partnership

Another and perhaps simpler way to ‘go green’ is through partnerships. Helen Keller famously said, ‘alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’. While it’s true that not everyone has the capacity to harness a source of renewable energy, it is always possible to team up with someone who does.

The Telegraph has been keeping track of wind farm construction since 2012. Its interactive map plots over 300 operational wind farms and hundreds more wind turbines under construction all over the UK – offering a great opportunity for data center operators based there in order to access sustainable energy.

An example of this in practice is our Montreal-based data center Beauharnois. It is located around 300 yards from a hydroelectric dam, meaning we are able to partner with a brilliant initiative and cut costs by using the renewable energy generated there.

Do a little DIY

My last tip on improving efficiency concerns the hardware you use.

With IT hardware having become commoditized to a large extent, purchasing ready-made components to deploy in data centers has become standard practice. Why spend extra money and time building your own, especially when you have to scale up quickly?

You may find it counter-intuitive, but buying cheap off-the-shelf parts isn’t always the most cost-effective approach.

The average life of a data center is between 10-15 years. During that time parts will unavoidably be replaced. So, why not make sure they last as long as possible?

Where possible, look to source high quality material and build hardware in-house. You can design, build, control and enhance the performance of your own servers. When built with better quality materials, hardware can survive more years of wear-and-tear, so it’s well worth the investment.

Furthermore, when some of your hardware is getting a little rickety, you can recycle many of the parts which still have life in them. If you settle for the cheapest option re-using parts is often difficult – or impossible - and this could prove costly over time.

And you don’t have to be starting from scratch to implement this approach. Retrofitting is becoming more and more popular, allowing older data centres to get an update and adapt to current demands around cost reduction and protecting the planet.

These are only a few of the many options you can consider. Technology is always evolving and new efficiency initiatives are produced constantly – from cooling systems to renewable energy partnerships.

Research suggests that by 2020, US data center energy consumption alone will increase to 140 billion kilowatt-hours, translating to around $13bn. It’s time to get proactive with your search, bold with your intention and see efficiency as non-negotiable in the future of your business.

  • Hiren Parekh is the ‎Director of Sales & Marketing at OVH
Hiren Parekh

Hiren Parekh is the VP Northern Europe at OVHcloud. He is a natural people first leader with strong business acumen, who has a proven track record of delivering significant business growth in challenging markets.