How sustainable are datacenters? We zoom in on 6 preconceptions!

The demand for IT capacity keeps growing. The amount of data is ever increasing and needs to be available from anywhere on the world. Datacenters are the centrepiece of this ecosystem and are confronted with ever increasing energy usage. This is why the sector has set the target to become more energy efficient and to adapt a green and sustainable reputation. But how sustainable are datacenters really? We take a look at six preconceptions.

1. Datacenters can’t be sustainable, because they use a tonne of energy

Partly true. Research by CE Delft at the behest of shows that the energy usage of IT in the Netherlands has pretty much remained the same in comparison to an earlier study from 2007. The total electricity usage of IT in the Netherlands was 9,4 TWh in 2013, of which a quarter (2,5 TWh) was used within the sector itself. Within this sector datacenters, with 1,4 TWH, are the largest energy users.

In an agreement between the central government and IT businesses, agreements have been recorded about energy efficiency (Routekaart ICT 2030). This means the branch is prioritizing the efficient use of energy by for example using solar panels and wind energy. But also think of sustainable cooling systems without chemicals. In addition, excess heat can be made available to heat building in the immediate vicinity. The results achieved by these measures contribute to the sustainability of datacenters. The number of datacenters in the Netherlands is increasing; services and data are increasing rapidly, but the energy usage of datacenters shows a relatively low influx. So even though datacenters do use a lot of energy, they do so in ever more efficient and sustainable ways.

2. The cooling systems of many datacenters cause pollution

Partly true. In the area of cooling datacenters can also work more sustainably. Conventional cooling methods are not climate-friendly due to the use of chemicals, says the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. An increasing number of datacenters is making the switch to the use of cold outside air or evaporation techniques to cool air coming in. For these cooling methods no additional energy is required and they are cost-effective. In addition, many on premise datacenters are still being cooled through air conditioners. Datacenters using chemicals for cooling are not working sustainably, but when a datacenter has for example developed an adiabatic cooling system, they can call themselves sustainable.

3. There are big differences in the CO2-emissions of ‘green power’

True. Although many datacenters in the Netherlands have started using green power, there are differences in the type of energy sources that yield green power. These differences affect the reduction of CO2-emissions. Research by Hivos shows that a large part of the green power that is sold in the Netherlands hardly contributes to the reduction of these emmissions. This is why Hivos does not see this as sustainable. Inquiries by this organization showed that a quarter of the datacenters that use green power are not aware of these differences.

4. Equipment in a datacenter cannot handle high temperatures

False. Hardware developers are never stagnant, which causes the temperature tolerance of equipment to steadily improve. This means that to achieve the optimal internal climate, datacenters are becoming less dependent on cooling and energy, while still being able to guarantee a high availability of the equipment.

5. The PUE-value indicates the sustainability of a datacenter

Partly true. Although PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) has long been the indicator of the sector, critics are starting to disagree. For example, Nathan Ensmenger, computer science professor at the University of Indiana and author of the book ‘The Environmental History of Computing’, says: “PUE is a horrible value. It ignores everything that’s interesting and problematic. Even worse, if you were to turn off the lights, a datacenter would run on one hundred percent efficiency.” Often the PUE is a static bit of data, while a datacenter itself is a dynamic environment. It says more about how the building in which the datacenter is housed was built, and furnished electrically, than the daily usage. The percentage does reflect the intention of a datacenter. The closer the PUE-value is to 1, the more careful a datacenter is handling its energy resources.

6. Sustainability in datacenters only applies to its hardware

False. Although the level of sustainability is best measured by things like energy usage, real sustainable entrepreneurship goes beyond this. Actual sustainable datacenters have made this an integral part of their operations and service. Efficiency needs to be reflected in every part of the business. This is for example the reason NorthC chose to work with a relatively small team. COO Jarno Bloem says: “We work with a small and very driven team. The advantage of this is that we differentiate ourselves from the big players. We notice that especially regional businesses appreciate doing business with real people.”

This is where the triple-P principle comes in. The three principles People, Planet, and Profit are inextricably intertwined. Profit is necessary to continue to exist and grow. People and the environment are prerequisites for the continuity of the future profit of the datacenter. Therefore, a healthy balance between these principles needs to be objective of every sustainable datacenter.

How sustainable is your datacenter?

The specialists of NorthC are happy to conduct an audit on your own datacenter. This is an easy way to find out how you can possibly make your datacenter even more sustainable.