The increasing pace of digitalisation across enterprises, coupled with the rise in the number of smart devices and burgeoning data consumption have fuelled the demand for network facilities that can seamlessly store and process huge volumes of data. Moreover, the growing adoption of next-generation technologies such as big data analytics, internet of things, artificial intelligence, automation and cloud computing has further increased the data storage and processing needs of enterprises. To this end, a large number of industries have started relying on data centres for all their data storage and computation requirements.
A typical data centre consists of networked computers, storage systems and computing infrastructure that enterprises use to assemble, process, store and disseminate large amounts of data. By enabling organisations to consolidate their network resources and infrastructure for data processing, storage and communications at one place, data centres help centralise the pool of IT employees, contractors and vendors while protecting firms’ proprietary systems and data. Besides, data centres give an economy of scale advantage to enterprises in running business applications that require a large network infrastructure for storing and processing data.
Given these benefits, the data centre market has witnessed unprecedented growth in the past few years. However, concerns are now being raised regarding the growing energy footprint of enterprises because of an increased reliance on data centres. This is because data centres, by design, are energy-guzzling facilities. They require huge amounts of power to process and store data as well as to cool off server racks housing the computing equipment. Some estimates suggest that data centres account for up to 5 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
As data centres will continue to remain the mainstay of the digital transformation of enterprises, the industry is looking at ways to make their operations sustainable. To this end, several technological solutions are now available in the market that can help reduce the energy footprint of data centres. With the adoption of data centres only set to grow in the next few years, there is a need to incentivise enterprises to deploy these solutions to make their data centre operations energy-efficient and environment-friendly.
Energy footprint of data centres
Despite many organisations migrating their data storage and processing systems and hardware to cloud environments, mainstream legacy corporate data centres continue to be major consumers of power. In a data centre facility, servers and cooling systems account for the greatest share of direct electricity use (86 per cent), followed by storage drives (11 per cent) and network devices (3 per cent). The majority of the energy demand of a data centre is, therefore, on account of the power requirements of servers, but they, in turn, also produce heat and need to be cooled. This cooling, again, requires a lot of energy and generates excess heat – most of which is currently being let out into the surrounding environment. The issue is, therefore, twofold. Data centres not only require enormous amounts of power to run, but also need substantial amount of electricity to cool off the heat generated during the process.
According to industry analysis, some of the world’s largest data centres require more than 100 MW of power, enough to supply electricity to around 80,000 US households. Globally, data centres use an estimated 200 TWh of power each year, which is more than the national energy consumption of some countries. The substantial electricity use of data centres has also given rise to concerns over their carbon dioxide emissions. According to industry sources, data centres currently contribute around 0.3 per cent to overall carbon emissions, which is on par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel. The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2025, data centres will consume one-fifth of the world’s power supply.
Strategies to optimise power consumption requirements
Given that around 40 per cent of the total energy consumed by a data centre goes towards maintaining a temperature-controlled environment, installing energy efficient cooling equipment can help drive down power consumption significantly. Advanced chiller equipment is now available in the market that uses low global warming potential refrigerant and can reduce the average annual electricity consumption of a data centre by up to 35 per cent. Moreover, data centre operators can deploy free-cooling chiller solutions, which include evaporative cooling technologies and offer even better energy efficiency.
Several data centre operators have also turned to liquid cooling to cool their server components more efficiently. Liquid cooling technology handles higher heat loads and also ensures less noise and a minimal cost for operations and maintenance. Further, it enables heat recovery and reuse, resulting in higher energy efficiency and lower environmental impact. Another cooling technology that is gaining prominence is calibrated vectored cooling (CVC). This cooling technology is designed specifically for high density servers. With the help of CVC, data centres can optimise air flow through the equipment and allow the cooling system to manage the heat more effectively.
A data centre’s power requirements can also be optimised and regulated through the use of predictive analytics. Given that the load on the data centre server varies throughout the day, smart cooling solutions, powered by predictive analytics, can help data centre managers optimally allocate power for different time periods. Industry estimates suggest that smart chillers can reduce unplanned and emergency repairs by as much as 66 per cent. Such solutions can also help identify and diagnose equipment problems in real time. Moreover, through continuous monitoring of all applications, data centres can transfer or redistribute energy across various applications, depending on their requirements. This can help reduce power requirements significantly. Experts also feel that data centres can be operated at 1-2 degrees higher than the temperatures at which they are run currently, without incurring any losses in system reliability and gaining up to 5 per cent savings in power consumption for cooling systems.
Another data centre power management technique that is gaining traction is dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (DVFS). Through this technique, power consumption can be reduced by lowering the voltage of the power supplied to the data centre. Further, with DVFS, data centre operators can reduce or increase both the voltage and frequency of power simultaneously. This can help them prevent any timing violations in the process.
Data centre operators must also take steps to reduce the dead server space prevalent in their facilities. Traditionally, data centres allocate storage space as per a company’s requirements, which can be scaled up as and when required. However, 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. By exploring ways to turn these servers off, data centre operators can reduce the energy consumption and cost.
The energy requirements of data centres can also be brought down by replacing physical servers with virtualisation technologies such as software-defined networking, network function virtualisation and cloud computing. According to industry reports, deployment of these virtualisation tools in data centres can increase server use from 10-20 per cent to at least 50-60 per cent. Besides, virtualisation can significantly improve hardware utilisation, thereby reducing the number of power-consuming servers and storage devices in the data centre.
The data centre market is receiving a huge impetus on the back of an ever-increasing demand for data generation, storage and processing. However, given the concerns around the power requirements of data centres and their potential negative ecological impact, the industry needs to make concerted efforts to improve data centre energy efficiencies and reduce their energy demand. By using advanced cooling solutions, operating data centres at slightly higher temperatures than at present, relying on green sources of energy such as solar and wind, and deploying smart analytics and virtualisation solutions, data centre operators can bring down the carbon footprint of their facilities. Conducive government policies to support the adoption of these green measures as well as commitments on part of data centres and network operators will be instrumental in improving the energy efficiency of this critical ICT infrastructure.