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The Sustainable Data Center of the Future

By Richard Jenkins
The environmental impact of data is difficult to see from the consumer perspective. We have expectations of being able to access information immediately, want our service providers to be able to do the same and it is essential for every corporation to make historical data available at the click of a button.

Data is the biggest environmental pressure being placed on the world today as the emissions from massive data centers break new global restrictions and the power consumed to run these essential services spirals upwards at a time when power production is in a radical state of change. Sustainable data centers can lesson that impact.

Big data

Executives in large enterprise companies have seen an unprecedented, and unexpected, exponential data growth, both in the amount of data their company is generating as part of its operations and in the quantity of data consumed by outside sources such as customers, suppliers, partners, the media and the connected public.

Data provides information which, in the right hands, makes a company better at what it does. It is able to compete stronger, predict more accurately, budget efficiently and invest strategically. Data, or Big Data as it is now called, is a great asset to have.

That data, however, needs infrastructure to house, manage and secure it. This infrastructure is a physical “thing” which has to continually grow to effectively transport and utilize the data. While the value of the data outweighs the problem of managing it, there are many financial, regulatory, political and social implications to its growth.

“Green” data centers

Power consumption per server in a data center was recently reported to have passed the cost of the server itself during its lifetime – typically three years. Data centers consume 1.2 percent of global power – 2 percent in the U.S. - and there are only approximately 13,000 of them.

The process of managing and serving data, however, requires energy and creates heat. Infrastructure is metal, so it retains heat; water used for cooling requires power to chill; and facilities require precisely controlled environmental conditions – temperature, air flow, air pressure, humidity, etc. – to prevent potentially disastrous business consequences.

In such a rapidly expanding sector, the costs of equipment must be low (as the company needs to buy so much of it on an ongoing basis) and the resources required to run at the highest performance must be scalable. This is the challenge for most companies. Facilities space is running out, servers and other “live” equipment have to be continually available and data center operators are in an increasing battle to balance growth with consolidation.

The corporate challenge

The daily task of addressing these challenges is handled by the IT staff but the implications are corporate-wide, especially at the executive level. Strategically, the data center is the most important asset as it processes the intelligence on which decisions that affect every aspect of the organization are made. There are financial implications to equip and maintain a facility. Executives are faced with increasingly demanding audit and regulatory requirements in data security, asset inventory and the financial and environmental implications of actually running the data center in the first place.

The environmental impact of data centers

The number of data centers being built around the world is expected to double by 2016. While this may seem to be a staggering amount of growth, it will still not be adequate to match the rate of growth in the generation of the data it is managing.

Alongside the data center increase is the inevitable power supply demand. While data centers and servers are becoming more energy efficient, there will always be massive power consumption, accompanied by unavoidable heat and CO2 emission impacts on the environment.

In Europe, power generation and consumption has truly brought together a “united states” of Europe. With the UK recently reporting it will be close to maximum power use by 2015, it already buys 20 percent of France’s nuclear-generated power. While technology and efficiency are evolving rapidly, the sheer number of data centers being built, expanded and utilized to their maximum will demand more power than is being created or can be saved.

Power generation is a major issue, but stabilizing environmental damage has led to regulations affecting those companies big enough to need large data centers. Regulations require accurate reporting, C-level sign off, stringent carbon emission standards to be met, reductions in fossil fuel-based power consumption and other corporate processes which must be addressed with immediate effect.

Carbon standards have been introduced worldwide with mature carbon taxation in Europe and Australia. These mechanisms set maximum emissions limits which can be met by reducing power consumption – so reducing the impact of generating that power and the heat emitted by using it. Paying for carbon credits – a form of trading where a company can buy carbon offset credits from accredited sustainable power production, or other recognized sustainable businesses – also balances the energy being consumed over regulatory guidelines.

Being a “polluter” means more than a hefty electricity bill and a fine for non-compliance, though. Investors, customers, suppliers and the media now judge the performance, value and strategy of a company based (partly) on its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), specifically its environmental impact and what it is doing about it.

Pitfalls of inadequate environmental strategies include; a company’s brand can be damaged by sending the wrong sustainability message; a lack of investment in change can result in customers choosing to instead buy products from  a company they perceive to be more “eco-friendly”; while investors may choose to focus solely on the many funds dedicated to “green stocks” found on every stock exchange.

Being “clean and green” is good for brand, good for revenue, good for financial efficiency and good for the future stature of a company.

Addressing the issue

Of course, to address the issue, you need more data. It is impossible to measure the performance and impact without monitoring. Frankly, every element of sustainability is about monitoring; consumption, emissions, change, etc. With accurate data, every level of decision maker can be empowered to address their aspect of the problem. A data center manager can, in real-time and proactively, adapt the physical infrastructure to meet the current demands on the systems. Financial and other operations staff can monitor and manage financial compliance, measure asset capitalization timelines, control costs and strategically forecast. Executives are assured that they are signing off accurate audits; they are able to develop long-term strategic decisions and can honestly, and confidently, present the “health of the company” to investors and customers.

Addressing environmental pressures

Many organizations are implementing practices to change the method in which they consume and manage energy. Some, predominantly the major IT companies, are going even further and building data centers to be entirely self-sustaining. These new developments include building ambient data centers where outside conditions maintain lower temperatures in the data center, solar and biofuel power generation, and trigeneration technologies where energy produced by other operational processes – such as the heat from servers – is used to power chillers that cool the water used to reduce the temperatures around racks of equipment.


It is impossible to manage an economically efficient and sustainable infrastructure without information. Like Big Data, monitoring assets and environmental conditions are only as good as the tools used to measure that data and the decisions made to utilize that knowledge.

There is a rapid move towards the protection of data. Some reasons for this are financial, due to massive fines being levied for security and regulatory infringements. Others are strategic, with organizations planning to remain the dominant force in their sector by leveraging the power of the data center to their advantage. It is clear that, like the climate, there is no going back when it comes to data generation, so it is essential for executives and their companies to invest in addressing these issues.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t measure what you don’t monitor.

[image credit: Intel Free Press: Flickr cc]

 Richard Jenkins joined RF Code in 2012 and brings over 21 years of management and international marketing of small and large IT, media and investment organizations. Prior to joining RF Code, Jenkins was instrumental in the launch and growth of a number of IT, cleantech and media organizations while CEO of Performedia International. From 2007, he served as Senior Vice President of an international cleantech investment firm, Kyoto Planet, where he launched a publishing company, built an international network of business, political and science leaders, and led the company’s business development group. Prior to this, Jenkins held the position of Vice President International Development at Corporate Radar (later acquired by Microsoft) after developing the global business partner marketing strategy for Crystal Decisions and Business Objects. Jenkins also spent four years setting up the IBM/Tivoli partner channels in EMEA and Asia Pacific during which time he led the launch of new mid-market products achieving 179% of targets in the first two years. He then moved to Austin, TX, to manage global partner marketing. In 1995, Jenkins launched an IT consulting organization in the UK which was later acquired by GE Capital IT Solutions. Jenkins has lived and worked in Europe, Asia, the US and Canada.

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