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Sustainability and Data Centers – an Unfathomable Dilemma?

The dilemma of sustainability and data centers dominates the IT leaders’ thinking, one way or another. Shall they go green to ‘save the planet’ or shall they go big to secure profits? Before I dive into the topic, let’s first see what sustainability means in general.

When we look at port operations, biodiesel and electrification still cost more than conventional options despite all efforts – politically and monetary - to implement clean solutions for the vessels, vehicles, and energy systems. When we look at the food chain, green products still cost more than those from highly industrialized farming.

The trade-offs are clearly visible: Economically viable solutions point to conventional methods. Therefore, protecting the environment requires strategic willpower, foresight, and investment.

At all times, you expect to have uninterrupted electrical power from your plug. This electricity might be produced sustainable or conventional. And unless you have solar panels on your roof, you surely don’t know. Did you realize that mining Bitcoins consumes around 130 terawatt-hours per year globally? This is 0.55% of global electricity production, compared with the annual energy draw of small countries like Malaysia or Sweden. Think about an LED bulb using 5 watts per hour: Using 130 terawatts, you could have lights on for roughly 150,000 years.

You expect you can always use your apps and IT solutions because you paid for your subscriptions. But are you wasting much energy within this software subscription model? I suppose you’re ignoring the energy consumption of your devices – unless you are offline and your battery goes low. Your iPhone or Android device uses 1,000 watts for an entire year. Compared with Bitcoin mining’s electric consumption, it’s nothing. The actual energy footprint occurs at the data centers of the providers. They need the energy to get you connected and to get you using your apps and subscriptions. Twenty apps on your device could mean, at worst, twenty different data centers.

The data centers managing your apps must be resilient, fault-tolerant, and elastic. As such, any data center runs at least one fail-over site, sometimes even more. Now, by this thought, the existence of data centers empowering the 20 apps nearly doubles.

Each data center needs a lot of electricity to run the machines and cool the sites (Figure 1). The data centers globally consumed more than 200 terawatt-hours in 2018, and the energy consumption shows a rapidly rising trend over the past decade.

I think it’s unrealistic to move the needle at a global scale, focusing on just one single enterprise-operated data center. But you can jumpstart sustainability by embedding your data center into your long-term goals to make a change and go green.

Of course, looking at the sustainability goals developed by the UN and published in 2016, only a few of its goals point directly to responsible energy consumption and infrastructure. In fact, only two goals potentially point to data centers: Number 9 (“Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure”) and number 12 (“Responsible Consumption and Production”). But as an IT Leader, you need to include the data center topic when developing a sustainability roadmap for your enterprise.

What can you do within your enterprise to turn sustainability concepts into action?

Several measures help you get out of the dilemma of running your own data center and reducing the energy consumption footprint.

- You evaluate cloud subscriptions and offload on-premise solutions to the cloud – where possible. This would decrease the energy consumption of your enterprise while you’d add only a tiny bit to the already existing data centers of the cloud subscription providers.

- You get innovative and add solar panels to compensate for the unavoidable energy consumption, be it in the data center or elsewhere.

- You shut off old IT systems that are only running to keep access to historical data intact.

- You secure your old data and migrate them to integrated and accessible data archives, using powerful data platform solutions such as JiVS.

- You make sure your business cases for your innovations follow the sustainability goals needed to improve people’s lives over the next 50 years.

I’m sure you can launch sustainability initiatives easy to pull off – effective and powerful. It’s not just saving money driving the goals; it’s, even more, the power of innovation impacting your enterprise positively. The dilemma of Sustainability and Data Centers is decipherable.

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