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With Data Centers Growing Larger, How Can We Make Them More Sustainable?

By: Kayla Matthews on February 18, 2019

The current and anticipated demands for data centers are so significant that the facilities grow progressively larger and still often fill up quickly with tenants that lease the space.

But besides figuring out the ideal sizes for data centers that meet demands, it's necessary for data center representatives to assess how to operate those facilities sustainably. That's especially necessary as these facilities become sprawling buildings that can drain resources.

Sustainability Often Means Relying on Natural Resources

People can take several routes when planning maximally sustainable data centers. One excellent way to get started is to assess how the surrounding environment could support sustainability.

For example, Microsoft deployed an underwater data center, and the company recognized that ocean temperatures could be instrumental in cutting the data center's cooling costs and energy usage.

Moreover, Microsoft picked Scotland's Orkney Islands as the location for its pioneering data center. That's a significant location because it's leading the way in sustainable energy due in part to more than 700 micro wind turbines. There are also opportunities to run parts of the data center with wave energy.

The undersea location is also interesting because it removes the need to look for large spaces on land that suit the massive sizes of today's data centers. Microsoft's idea is still in the testing phase, but it's a prime example of how crucial it is to work with the surrounding environment when aiming for optimal sustainability.

Artificial Intelligence Can Help Maximize Sustainability

Progress in sustainability frequently happens when companies look at existing technologies and how they might help. Google's DeepMind arm applied machine learning to cut data center cooling costs and achieved a reduction of up to 40 percent.

The process involved taking historical data from thousands of sensors already in the data center and using them to train deep neural networks. Then, in the summer of 2018, Google moved to a new phase of its artificial intelligence (AI) project. The company allowed the system to make real-time tweaks without human intervention.

Previously, the technology made recommendations to engineers who ultimately decided whether to follow them. This case study gives a glimpse of how more of the world's largest data centers may have similar integrated technology that mines through data and decides how to help the facilities run as sustainably as possible.

Some Sustainability Upgrades Are Simple But Effective

Building data centers with sustainability in mind is one option, but it's also possible to improve existing data centers through relatively straightforward upgrades. One data center brand updated three of its data centers in 2018 and estimated the payoff to be 5.5 million kilowatt hours every year.

One of the upgrades entailed fitting a data center with LED lights and advanced controls. Those additions allowed people in the facility to save energy and make the most of natural daylight. If data center executives feel reluctant to retrofit their data centers for sustainability reasons, they should remember that even focusing on one aspect of the data center could make meaningful differences.

Facebook Contributed to the Local Bee Population

Besides saving resources, data center sustainability ideally takes into account ways to minimize disruption to living things.

Facebook did that with a data center in Ireland when it brought 10 beehives onto the data center site and created an environment that catered to the needs of the bees with flower and plant life. Each hive holds 50,000 bees, and they fly approximately three miles from the apiary each day.

Facebook hopes the bees will benefit the area's farmers by increasing pollination. It's also worth pointing out that this data center uses 100-percent renewable wind energy as a power source. Adding bees to the data center's plans was not a conventional move, but it shows how there are many ways to demonstrate sustainability.

Industry-Standard Ratings Can Inform Sustainability Improvements

When data center representatives seek to make their huge data centers more sustainable, one smart step to take is to use an established rating scale that indicates what improvements could be most effective in reaching sustainability goals. At the end of last year, a Fujitsu data center in Perth, Australia, achieved a four-star rating from the National Australia Built Environment Rating System (NABERS).

The rating depends on a facility's power usage effectiveness (PUE), and Fujitsu representatives regularly consulted with outside parties to determine if their upgrades would meet sustainability objectives. The company also wants to take the same approach with several of its other enterprise-level data centers.

Alternatively, the people in charge of building a new data center or improving a new one could pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. A couple of years ago, there was a collaborative campaign to promote the development of more LEED-certified data centers in China. It represents one of the largest data center markets in the world.

Working with companies that understand or issue sustainability ratings and can help their clients meet goals is a worthwhile thing to do when plans for new data centers or upgrades are underway. The insights gained can guide a company's future direction, plus give them well-defined sustainability achievements they can mention in company documents and at stakeholder meetings.

Sustainability Must Be a Priority as Data Centers Get Bigger

Data centers are getting larger to meet the demands of a tech-reliant society that streams, sends and downloads online content each day.

The upcoming 5G network will likely place further requirements on those facilities and may require them to become even more tremendous in size.

With these things in mind, data center professionals must be mindful of how to meet client needs while also respecting the environment and its resources.

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