Is the current rampant rise of data centers sustainable for energy consumption?
That's the question tackled by Policy Connect in their latest report that delves into the UK's digital economy. The cross-party inquiry was co-chaired by Antoinette Sandbach, Conservative MP for Eddisbury, and Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge.
The era of the Internet of Things (IoT) is also the time to take stock of the energy and carbon costs of being increasingly online. According to Policy Connect, high energy bills, new efficient ICT technologies and regulations have thus far kept the proportion of electricity used by ICT products and services in line.
However, the growing dependence on connected devices and digital technologies could stall these energy efficiency gains and consequently cause the UK's carbon footprint to soar.
Given the importance of ensuring that energy efficiency gains continue, Policy Connect reports it is essential to take an ‘energy efficiency by design' approach to designing, building and operating digital services: this should be high on the government's list of criteria.
“New digital technologies can play an important role in combatting climate change, as well as reducing energy bills,” says co-chair Sandbach.
“I hope that this report will be the first step to driving greater energy efficiency in our use of digital services and encouraging economic growth through more digital products and services that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Co-chair Zeichner shares these sentiments.
“This report on the energy consumption and carbon emissions of the internet is an important step in making policy makers aware of the energy consequences of the internet. It should be taken into account by all those working on energy efficiency and digital transformation programmes,” says Zeichner.
“As we move to a more digital economy, we need to ensure that these recommendations are built in to the design, implementation and delivery of services from the start and that our digital backbone is both efficient and effective in the future.
In terms of the findings of the report, there's no surprise that data centers are undoubtedly power-hungry with this expected to rise as billions more devices and machines are connected over the coming years.
In recent years total global energy consumption and carbon emissions from ICT have levelled and actually decreased in some cases due to energy efficient improvements. However, there are concerns that these efficiency improvements won't be able to keep up with the demand for digital services.
Although data center workload is forecast to triple by 2020, energy demand is expected to grow by only 3 percent thanks to continuing efficiency gains from servers and cooling equipment.
Policy Connect quotes research that estimates ICT solutions to have the potential to enable a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of up to 15.3 percent by 2030.
“Predictions of runaway carbon emissions from the sector have not come to pass but we must not become complacent. As we move into an increasingly digital world, we need to ensure the sector is also a sustainable one,” says techUK head of environment and compliance Susanne Baker.
“The digital transformation of our economy must be designed with energy efficiency front and centre. This means seizing the opportunities that digital technologies present to cut energy consumption and carbon emissions and placing energy efficiency as a core systems design consideration, along with privacy and security.
Aegis Data CEO Greg McCulloch says the report from Policy Connect caught his attention given it was exactly in line with his company's mission.
“While more traditional data centers have been developed to provide a more efficient but powerful alternative to on-site server rooms, they are reaching their limits,” says McCulloch.
“They are simply not set up to accommodate higher densities – generally you are looking at between 3-5 kW per rack. This means less power and slower processing, which is bad news when you need to factor in the huge and rapidly growing volumes of data that needs crunching.
McCulloch says modular data centers that are built specifically for high-density can accommodate densities up to about 25 kW per rack, maximising footprint and power.
“These denser banks of computer resource also reduce minute but critical periods of latency between servers during intense parallel processing, which will be critical as demand for computing power continues,” says McCulloch.
“This approach also addresses the concerns raised around energy efficiency. This higher density approach is obviously more power-intensive and requires more cooling than most data centers can manage, but Aegis' facility, Aegis ONE, is designed with direct fresh air cooling, which means we are using the external, natural air to cool our data center instead of the more traditional air conditioning configurations in legacy data centers.
Reinforcing this approach, McCulloch says Aegis Data recently spoke to 40 IT decision makers in the UK about this exact topic and almost three quarters (70 percent) said they would consolidate their racks if they had the right power and cooling requirements.