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Green Solutions: Energy efficient technologies for data centres

June 25, 2019
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The surge in data demand has put significant pressure on modern-day data centres to deliver higher capacities. As a result, data centres are guzzling massive amounts of energy. As per industry analysts, data centres account for close to 2 per cent of the world’s total electricity requirements. This is only expected to grow in the near future as technologies like artificial intelligence, internet of things and machine learning see higher adoption across various industries. At present, there are about 10 billion connected devices around the world. Analysts predict that this will go up to 50 billion by 2020. This will undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on the existing data centres, resulting in an increase in their energy consumption.

The growing energy consumption by data centres is significantly adding to the global carbon footprint. As per industry analysis, the entire information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem accounts for about 2 per cent of the global carbon emissions, of which data centres contribute about 0.3 per cent. Analysts predict that ICT could potentially account for over 20 per cent of the total global electricity use over the next 10 years and data centres are expected to contribute over one-third of this.

Given that the power requirement of data centres is expected to increase manyfold in the near future, the industry has started exploring several energy efficient and environmentally sustainable solutions as well as energy management strategies to reduce energy consumption at data centres.

New cooling techniques

High power density chips and high energy density machines are increasingly being used to enable faster data transmission. This significantly adds to the heat load of data centres. Effective heat management at data centres requires powerful fans with larger diameters. Also, large space is needed to allow heat dissipation. This can cause high air noise, create a thermal impact on the environment, and increase both capex and opex. In such a scenario, conventional air-cooling methods are proving to be outdated and inefficient. Moreover, they are quite expensive, difficult to manage and take a toll on the environment. As a result, companies are now gradually moving to alternative cooling methods such as liquid cooling.

Liquid cooling technology is able to handle higher heat load, while at the same time ensuring less noise and a minimal cost for operations and maintenance. It is also more flexible and compatible as far as the adoption of newer technologies is concerned. Further, it enables heat recovery and reuse, resulting in higher energy efficiency and lower environmental impact.

Another key technological advancement in the data centre cooling space is the rack/row-based technique. This method targets specific rows for cooling on the basis of their requirement. This technique is becoming particularly useful as air paths are getting smaller. The rack/ row-based technique provides advantages such as high speed, flexibility and density, along with low cost. The electricity costs involved in a row-based technique are generally lower than those of the room-based practice.

Virtualisation of servers

Though the concept of virtualisation of servers at data centres was introduced quite some time back, it has started gaining traction only in recent years. Virtualisation entails the replacement of physical servers in data centres with virtualisation technologies and software such as cloud computing, software-defined networking and network function virtualisation technologies. The virtualisation of physical servers in data centres helps in significantly cutting down the energy requirements of data centres, resulting in power savings. It also enables companies to effectively control and monitor their IT infrastructure via a central interface.

Use of li-ion batteries

The “always-on” functionality of data centres requires a continuous battery backup. While until recently valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries were the major energy source for UPSs in data centres, companies are now turning to lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries for this purpose. This is because such batteries are more cost effective, energy efficient and environment friendly. According to Data Center Frontier, li-ion batteries can provide savings of 10-30 per cent in the total cost of ownership. This is because the operating cost of li-ion batteries is much lower than that of lead acid batteries. Further, they have a longer lifespan and are more compact, taking less floor space. Moreover, the charging time of li-ion batteries is just two hours as compared to 10-12 hours for VRLA batteries. They can operate at higher ambient temperatures with much less degradation and do not require cooling as frequently as VRLA batteries. All this translates into significant power savings. These factors have led to an increase in the demand for li-ion batteries among data centre operators.

Dawn of green data centres

As the name suggests, a green data centre deploys environment-friendly solutions within its infrastructure. Like any other data centre, it stores, manages and disseminates data, and while doing so it emits fewer carbon footprints. This is because all the systems, including mechanical and electrical, are designed with a goal to conserve energy. Another key aspect of a green data centre is the continuous monitoring of all applications. This enables the data centre to use power efficiently as it can transfer or redistribute energy across various applications, depending on the requirements. This helps reduce the capital expenditure significantly. It also addresses the problem of dead server space prevalent in traditional data centres. Traditionally, data centres allocate storage space depending on a company’s requirements. The space can be automatically increased as and when required. This often results in the creation of dead server space. As per industry estimates, nearly one-fifth of all servers in a traditional data centre remain vacant and unused as a result of this process. While these servers do not have any functional use, they continue to consume energy and other resources, significantly adding to the capital expenditure. Green data centres, on the other hand, can turn these servers off, which reduces the energy consumption and cost.

The efficient working of a green data centre can also be attributed to its infrastructure layout. Many green data centres use contained, prefabricated modules that can be deployed and changed with great ease. These modules are designed for optimal and predictable energy use.

As per industry sources, the global market for networking solutions used in a green data centre is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 27 per cent by 2024. Much of this growth is expected to take place in the Asia-Pacific region, owing to the emergence of start-ups and industrial development happening in countries like India and China.

Moreover, switching to energy-efficient solutions and hardware is only one part of the equation, the other being the adoption of renewable sources of energy for powering data centres. Companies across the globe have started making a conscious effort to supplement their current sources of energy with renewables. In fact, various global IT giants have committed to going 100 per cent green over the next couple of years. Some companies have even started to build their own energy campuses. Actions taken by governments world over to promote the adoption of renewable energy are expected to provide a further impetus to this trend.

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