What are the Latest Developments in Sustainable Data?

What are the Latest Developments in Sustainable Data?

If you’re in the business of running data centers or server farms, you probably have two big goals for your department right now: cutting energy costs and decreasing your carbon footprint. Luckily for you, those two often go hand in hand – and have given birth to the concept of sustainable data.

In this blog, we’ll talk about the latest developments in sustainable data – which fall into two categories, broadly speaking:

  1. Taking steps to decrease the amount of unsustainable power used by your hardware.
  2. Using your hardware to contribute to sustainability initiatives, essentially offsetting your own carbon emissions (though not necessarily doing anything to reduce energy costs).

Sustainable data – reducing your power usage

Load shedding partnerships
We’ve written about this before, but to summarize, load shedding is where power companies burn off excess energy that they’ve generated. It’s necessary to avoid overloading the power grid, but it’s still wasteful and releases large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. 

Industries like crypto mining are uniquely positioned to help energy companies avoid load shedding by using that excess power. The supplier wastes less energy, and the miner gains access to cheaper energy that would have been wasted anyway (and can gain additional credits by curtailing operations when demand is high).

Though you still use the same amount of power by partnering with an energy supplier in this way, you get that energy far cheaper – and, because you are using energy that would otherwise have been wasted, you are helping decrease the carbon footprint of the process.

Using renewable energy
This is a pretty obvious method of decreasing your carbon footprint – yet there are complexities that are worth discussing. The simplest way to make your energy consumption greener is to switch to a renewable energy tariff, which means you are buying your energy from a company that generates its power through renewable sources. It’s a surefire way to decrease your carbon footprint on paper – but the reality may be slightly different. 

Due to the way energy is physically provided to companies, the actual power that you consume may not be generated sustainably. Instead, your provider may be purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates from companies that are generating sustainable energy. It means that someone has generated and is receiving renewable energy – just not you, necessarily.

It’s also worth noting that green tariffs (especially those where your provider is directly generating and distributing the energy) often cost more than comparable non-green tariffs – so, while you will be doing great things for your sustainability goals, you will pay more for it.

If your operation is large enough, you could of course consider generating your own renewable energy, too. Doing so will require significant investment on your part, though – especially for power-intensive applications such as crypto mining, which may make it impractical.

Free cooling
Free cooling has been around since 2014, though it’s still not widely adopted in data centers globally. The principle is simple – use the air or water outside the data center to cool the equipment in the data center. It uses much less energy than standard data center cooling methods because there’s no need to artificially chill the air – great for your energy costs and your carbon footprint. 

The technology isn’t without its limitations – the biggest one being that it’s less effective in hot countries, especially for compute-intensive activities that generate a lot of heat. Thinking of sustainability, there’s also the question of how the heat you release into the atmosphere (or the water, if you use a water-based system), which most articles on the subject seem to ignore.

Investing in more efficient hardware
As the demand for computing power grows, hardware manufacturers are working on making their technology more efficient. Some of the results being achieved are impressive; AWS developed a processor in 2019 that uses up to 60% less energy than its predecessor.

If you have the capital, then this could be a great way for you to reduce your energy costs and your environmental impact. Of course, you have to account for the cost of the hardware as well, which will take some time to pay itself back, so if cost saving is your main goal and cashflow is tight, think carefully before investing in new hardware. 

There are other hardware considerations beyond your compute power. Cooling systems, environmental controls, and all the other ancillary systems that help your data center run are also being improved all the time. Liquid immersion cooling is a prime example of this – though more on that later.

Store/process less data
Your hardware only uses power when it’s working. So, if you can ensure that it’s only working when you need it to – or on things that are vital – then you may be able to curb energy usage. Storing fewer data will make your database run faster, as your processors don’t have to sift through as much information to find and process what they need; it also has numerous security benefits. And, of course, only processing data that are vital for a task will use less power than processing extra data.

How practical is this? Well, it depends on your business. Crypto miners, for instance, can only reduce the amount of data they store and process if they reduce their hashrate, which is exactly the opposite of what they need to do. And if you run retail colocation data, then you won’t have any control over how your clients use their hardware. This option, therefore, is best suited to private data center owners who can control what their hardware is doing, and those who can reduce their compute load without compromising their business.

Liquid immersion cooling
We mentioned before that hardware innovations that reduce power usage aren’t restricted to just your processors. In fact, processing power may not even be the biggest use of energy in a data center. Cooling can account for 30-55% of a data center’s energy consumption. Liquid immersion cooling is perhaps the most promising innovation in cooling technology in recent years, able to achieve up to 95% power efficiency and a PUE score of 1.02.

Simply put, the technology works by immersing your hardware in dielectric liquid (that doesn’t conduct electricity). The fluid conducts heat much better than air, and is circulated either by pumps or by convection so that warm liquid flows through heat exchangers and cool liquid flows over your equipment.

Because the reduction in energy consumption from liquid immersion cooling is so dramatic, you can also use it to increase the performance of your hardware while still reducing energy usage – making it a great option for sustainable future growth.

Sustainable data – contributing to sustainability efforts

Heat recovery
Currently, the heat generated by air conditioning is just released into the atmosphere. It’s not necessarily damaging, but it is wasted energy. Heat recovery systems capture that energy and use it.  

One example published in 2021 involves a Danish data center using residual heat to power a local heating network, providing 100,000MWh of energy per year. Similar initiatives are in place in other countries.

It’s hard to weigh up how sustainable this initiative is. On the one hand, it’s using wasted energy which is very green – for those receiving the energy. However, the cooling system and the hardware in the data center that generate that heat can still be powered by unsustainable energy sources. And it’s not clear (and likely not consistent across different initiatives) how the energy is paid for. Does the data center give it away for free? If not, what does it sell it for? These questions need careful thought before you can weigh up whether heat recovery is a good idea for your data center.

Invest in green initiatives
This is fairly simple – you invest a portion of your profits into sustainable initiatives, to offset the carbon footprint of your energy usage. It’s one of those ideas that looks good on paper, and may provide much-needed funding to sustainability initiatives, but empirically doesn’t do anything to actually limit your energy usage or your carbon footprint – it just makes you feel better about those two things.

If you have no other way to contribute to the sustainability agenda, then this might be an attractive option. However, the investment you make in sustainability initiatives might be better invested in making your own data center more sustainable, instead.

Why are new sustainable data developments significant?

Developments in sustainability have always felt like an arms race. The effects of climate change needs to be reversed as quickly as possible, so the people responsible for new innovations designed to help reduce energy usage or increase production of sustainable energy are constantly looking for the NEXT innovation. According to the UN, fossil fuel production needs to decline by 6% every year until 2030 in order to limit the damage from climate change; as some of the biggest users of energy in the world, data centers can have a massive impact on that target through sustainable data.

As we’ve discussed, sustainable data developments are primarily focused on reducing the energy required to run a data center. Other initiatives, such as load shedding, are designed to make use of waste energy and so reduce the need for additional energy generation to run data centers.

Why are companies looking for sustainable data options?

There are a few reasons why companies are interested in sustainable data, ranging from the self-serving to the altruistic:

  • Many organizations are recognizing their role in reducing the impacts of climate change. Sustainable data initiatives allow them to act responsibly while carrying out their activities.
  • Organizations are also aware that sustainable data is good PR, if done correctly; customers and consumers alike are rating sustainability as a crucial factor when selecting a data center provider.
  • Sustainable data often comes with lower energy usage, which in turn reduces an organization’s cost base. There are very few organizations that would ignore an opportunity to reduce their cost base without impacting (or even while optimizing) performance.

Of course, all three of those motivations might be present in some organizations at different levels. Whatever the motivation, though, if an organization runs a lot of hardware and handles a lot of data, then the topic of sustainable data will be pretty high on its agenda.

Can data centers contribute to a more sustainable future?

Because of the amount of data they consume, data centers aren’t just able to contribute to a more sustainable future – they are vital to it. The work that happens in data centers is now vital to the running of many aspects of the world. Much of our infrastructure including banks, transport, communications, healthcare and utilities are reliant on data to operate. Since data centers are a fact of life, they are a vital part of getting to a sustainable future.

In part, data centers carry one of the greatest burdens for sustainability. Because they use so much energy, they present a massive opportunity to decrease emissions. But because of that opportunity, there will likely also be a heavy investment and focus on how to decarbonize the data center industry, with technologies such as liquid immersion cooling leading the way.

At CES Corporation, we have been helping customers with compute-intensive hardware to reduce their energy costs and carbon footprint for 20 years. Our Intelliflex™ product is designed to drastically decrease the energy needs of your data center, with the potential to achieve a PUE of 1.02. If you’d like to discuss how we can help you start or supercharge your sustainable data journey, please get in touch today.


➔   What is sustainable infrastructure?

Sustainable infrastructure is hardware that has been manufactured, procured, and is operated with a carbon footprint in mind. In the context of data centers, the focus is mainly on operating hardware as efficiently as possible, to reduce energy usage. That includes using renewable energy sources, using as little energy as possible to run the equipment, and finding ways to use the waste heat from the process. There are other factors that can be considered though, such as the construction and eventual disposal of hardware – can old parts be recycled?

➔   What is green data?

Green data is a synonym for sustainable data. Both terms refer to data center activities and operations that are designed to limit waste, use renewable energy resources, and to use that energy as efficiently as possible.

➔   What is the circular economy?

Traditionally, organizations have followed a pattern of acquiring resources, using them, then disposing of the waste. The circular economy offers an alternative model where the focus is on designing out waste from that system. That means minimizing the amount of energy used, generating that energy from renewable sources, as well as capturing and using any waste products to reduce the need for new energy.

For data center operators, the circular economy is mainly about finding renewable sources of energy and treating the heat generated by the data center as a resource to be recaptured and used in some form.