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8 Ways to Ensure a Greener Data Center

After becoming increasingly popular in the mid-2000s, cloud computing has revolutionized the data center industry. Aside from providing cost-savings, security, mobility, and scalability benefits, cloud computing was also expected to be more environmentally friendly than other data storing and processing methods. By being highly efficient, cloud operators can reduce the use of electricity and other materials that typically increase a data center’s carbon footprint.

The extensive use of cloud services has resulted in an increased demand for larger data centers spread across the world. Combined with the explosive growth of data, the demand for public cloud offerings has caused cloud service providers such as AWS, Google, and Alibaba to thrive.

In response to a growing concern over the sustainability of data centers and cloud operators by governments, industry regulators, and customers, many of these organizations have set goals to reach a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

According to reports, the data center industry as a whole uses approximately 150 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which is about 3% of the world’s electricity usage. As such, data centers must operate as efficiently and sustainably as possible to eliminate any potential harm to the environment.

Some ways to ensure a greener data center include:

1. Upgrade to New Equipment

Although equipment may not be considered broken or need extensive maintenance as operation efficiency appears to be optimal, the older the equipment, the less energy efficient it may be. This is especially true for legacy equipment that may not have been manufactured to keep up with the current expansion and development of data center technology. This issue is most prominent in older data centers where the core mechanical and electrical components, such as uninterruptible power systems (UPSs), static transfer switches (STSs), and building switchgear are nearing the end of their recommended life.

While regular maintenance and repair can improve the functionality of equipment, over time, equipment becomes less reliable and more expensive to maintain. It is also important to not only replace the larger, more prominent equipment but the smaller, often forgotten equipment as well, such as capacitors and circuit breakers. Equipment upgrades are often discouraged to save money, but the efficiency savings offered by modern equipment often outweigh them. It is also more beneficial in the long run to avoid the expensive risk of data center downtime from old and faulty equipment.

2. Minimize bypass airflow

Another aspect of data centers that greatly contributes to the amount of energy used is the cooling system. Data center cooling is estimated to account for roughly half of total data center energy consumption, so it is important to optimize airflow to improve energy efficiency. Bypass airflow is the air that returns to a cooling unit without removing any heat. It results in lost cooling capacity, higher cooling costs, and an increase in hot spots. Therefore, bypass airflow decreases the energy efficiency of the cooling system and requires additional cooling to remove heat from the IT equipment.

Bypass airflow can be managed with blanking panels that improve airflow, decrease server inlet temperatures, and increase Computer Room Air Conditioning (CRAC) return air temperature. This solution can reduce wasted energy, and therefore cut energy costs down by 1-2%. Another solution is raised floor grommets that seal cable penetrations in raised floors and allow maximum pressure to be maintained in the sub-floor plenum while still allowing cables to enter the enclosures. Another solution is to install efficiency hoods onto the CRAC units to increase the supply of warmer air by extending the unit up to the return plenum. This can lower the cold aisle temperature by 1-2 degrees, decreasing the amount of energy needed to cool the data center.

3. Switch to Eco Mode

Uninterrupted power supplies (UPSs) can waste a significant amount of energy despite being able to operate on several modes that can reduce this waste. Economy (ECO) Mode is an option designed to minimize the losses associated with inefficient energy usage, and it involves incoming power passing directly through the UPS. In this mode, the servers run on utility power but are still protected in the event of a power outage.

However, ECO mode is not a very popular method to improve energy efficiency as there is increased risk associated with noise and other power issues that can create significant server problems. What many data center managers do not know is that in ECO mode, the efficiency of the bypass path is 98%-99% compared to the base UPS efficiency of 94%-97%. This results in a potential 2-3% reduction in data center energy consumption.

4. Use Server Virtualization

Server virtualization involves physical servers being used as pools of logical computing capacity. The servers are divided into multiple “virtual machines” that run as if they were physically separated machines as they facilitate the operations of multiple systems and applications. This is one of the most effective ways to increase server utilization, consolidate space and equipment, and reduce energy consumption as it decreases the number of physical servers needed within the data center. Due to the reduced number of servers being utilized, energy consumption decreases significantly as there is a reduced need for electricity and cooling. Virtualization is extremely helpful as idle servers (also known as ghost servers) are reported to use 50% of their rated power. Considering that up to 30% of servers in a data center may be idle, the opportunity for increased efficiency via virtualization is massive.

There are also technological benefits as virtualization provides an unprecedented degree of scalability and flexibility. Also, administrators have fewer physical systems to purchase, install, configure, and maintain, which preserves data center uptime and operational efficiency.

5. Recycle or Reuse Equipment

Aside from the traditional recycling bin for paper and plastic, data centers need to recycle and potentially reuse their equipment to reduce the amount of unnecessary emissions released into the atmosphere from equipment manufacturing. For instance, Google has been known for reusing its data center equipment since 2007 by transforming outdated servers to avoid purchasing over 300,000 new machines. If Google cannot find a use for outdated or worn-down machines, it resells the equipment so that it can be used for other purposes. Some equipment that can easily be recycled include generators, switchgear, automatic transfer switches, raised flooring, copper, UPSs, power distribution units (PDUs), and much more. There are even companies such as Green Recycling Co., that will take care of the recycling process without hassle.

Reusing equipment is also a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of data centers. However, many data center managers will have to change their mindset towards used equipment as many are against the idea. Even if the machine is a third of the cost of brand-new equipment and its remaining useful life exceeds the expected life of the facility, the lack of knowledge of the machine’s history is a risk many managers are not willing to make. Ultimately, it comes down to the dedication of the data center manager to environmental sustainability as there are risks associated with reusing equipment, but if done on a large scale, the impact can be massive.

6. Implement Green Building Certification Systems

There are numerous green building certification programs available to help guide, demonstrate, and document efforts to work towards more sustainable, high-performing data centers. The most notable is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, and the levels of certification range from Silver, Gold, and Platinum. A Platinum data center is one with the highest level of environmentally responsible construction along with an efficient use of resources. Some characteristics of a LEED-certified data enter include improved cooling efficiency, reduced energy consumption, use of a clean backup power system, using renewable energy, and green construction.

While it is not mandatory for data centers to obtain this certification, more and more data centers are becoming LEED-certified in response to the growing awareness of environmental issues caused by data centers. One of the major benefits of a LEED certification is the tax credit awarded by many state and local governments as an incentive. For instance, at the $1.80 per square foot deduction, a 147,000 square foot gold LEED data center could qualify for a $264,600 EPAct tax deduction. This is also an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage over other data centers as customers who also value environmental sustainability will feel inclined to choose a LEED-certified data center over a competitor whose sustainability efforts may not be as highlighted.

7. Use Renewable Energy

While the aforementioned practices can help reduce energy consumption and the carbon footprint of data centers as a whole, it is also important for data centers to directly address the source of the problem. Solar panels, wind turbines, and hydroelectric plants are all examples of renewable energy that can replace traditional fossil fuels. Some of the biggest and most well-known companies, including Apple, Amazon, Target, and Google, have led the industry with the most solar capacity installed in their facilities as of 2018.

IRENA’s 2019 report indicates that newly installed renewable power capacity is significantly less expensive than even the cheapest fossil fuel-powered generator options. For instance, “more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower electricity costs than new coal. New solar and wind projects are also undercutting the cheapest existing coal-fired plants.” This is primarily attributed to the use of on-site renewables to manage demand and/or mitigate reliance on the main utility grid during peak rate times. Aside from costs, one of the most obvious benefits of renewable energy is that the sources are highly unlikely to run out or become unavailable.

8. Reduce Energy Consumption with DCIM Software

Leading data center professionals leverage Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) software to monitor and manage energy consumption to facilitate more efficient operations. DCIM should be used in conjunction with the above energy preservation methods as it provides both the capabilities and the information needed to minimize energy consumption while maximizing the utilization of your existing data center footprint.

DCIM software allows you to:

  • Design the physical data center to increase efficiency. With DCIM software, you can model your data center floor maps before the physical build-out. This allows you to visualize the layout of floor PDUs, cooling system elements, hot/cold aisle containment and separation, and much more to ensure there is adequate space, power, and network capacity to operate the equipment without overprovisioning capacity.
  • Consolidate resources via virtualization. Server virtualization reduces the number of physical servers needed with a data center, and DCIM software can help track where applications are located within the consolidated system. It also helps you visualize how much physical space is being used along with how capacity is being allocated to virtual machines.
  • Monitor energy consumption. Power monitoring is an important part of ensuring a data center is as eco-friendly as possible. By collecting real-time power data down to the outlet level, you can identify ghost servers and power hogs. You can also set thresholds on the data collected so that you are notified when those thresholds are exceeded.
  • Monitor temperature and humidity. Built-in ASHRAE cooling charts and 3D thermal map videos allow you to visualize where you may be overcooling equipment and wasting energy. With this information, it’s easy to know how much to raise temperature set points to increase efficiency without introducing risk.
  • Facilitate energy-efficient behaviors. Important data collected by DCIM software includes the tracking of energy and cost data by customer, business unit, or application. This data can be used to encourage energy-efficient behaviors from customers who will be charged for their actual energy consumption.

Bringing It All Together

The growing demand for cloud computing and data centers will inevitably lead to an increase in the energy consumed by them, but it can be achieved in a highly sustainable manner. While data centers are extremely important institutions in a society that heavily relies on the internet and technology, data center managers must encourage eco-friendly practices.

Not only is data center energy efficiency critical to the health of the environment, but it also provides many benefits concerning lower costs and better performance of equipment. There are often negative attitudes towards greener data center practices as they appear to be complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. While it may seem easier to continue your data center operations as is, data shows that green data centers incur fewer costs, have more efficient performance, and are overall more appealing to consumers who may also value environmental sustainability.

For more best practices on how to increase data center sustainability, download our new eBook: 10 Best Practices to Reduce Your Data Center Carbon Footprint.

Want to see how Sunbird’s world-leading DCIM software can help you make your data center greener? Get your free test drive today!

February 17, 2022
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