January 17, 2023
I’ve been extoling the virtues of decarbonizing the data center for months; so much so, that it’s time to go a little deeper.
Through my blogs, presentations and speaking events, we’ve sparked compelling conversations with people across industries and disciplines, from enterprise customers to industry watchers, from government officials to organizations simply desperate to start working on sustainability.
The question I get asked the most is often the most complicated, which is: where to start?
It’s tricky because every organization is at a different point in their sustainability ‘transformation.’ And some haven’t begun. They have different goals, resources, and expertise. Facilities management, for example, that looks at everything from cooling and lighting to electric generation and insulation, may be the first place for some. Paring down the data center by moving to cloud or hybrid cloud models may be a first choice for others.
But I want to shed light on the area of infrastructure – the digital equipment, compute, and storage – the raison d’etra of the data center. There’s much to be gained by being smarter about this area of the operation.
Making an eco-friendly product has both environmental and human safety in mind. At a minimum, an eco-friendly design stipulates that a system is produced in ways that do not deplete the ecosystem in which it resides. In this realm, reducing emissions over the lifecycle of a system, for example, is as critical as the recycling phase. Because doing so ensures that the utmost minimum amount of waste gets shipped to the landfill and the maximum amount of material that can be reused, is reused.
Sustainability officers are increasingly asking us about a product's lifecycle emissions to understand the impact it has on their sustainability goals. They aim to invest in green products that can reduce emissions and thus strengthen the company's profile at a lower cost. This however demands a review of the life cycle of the product, the location in which it will operate, and its ultimate recycling phase.
Consider the work we’ve done here at Hitachi Vantara. Over the last three generations of data storage systems, we have seen the impact of our sustainability-by-design approach help organizations lower both emissions and costs.
Eco-friendly infrastructure like this can fundamentally change a company's green profile and lower the cost of running a data center. That’s because the systems enable people to lower the amount of electricity needed and lessen the amount of floor space needed, each of which helps them lessen the amount of cooling required.
The only way to look at the emissions of a system is from cradle-to-grave. Otherwise, you’re missing opportunities along the way. The truth is that emissions begin during the acquisition of material in the pre-process of production. Being deliberate about the material selection – where it’s produced, what it’s made of, how it’s produced, how it’s shipped, etc., – is the first step in a sustainability-by-design approach. From there the lifecycle moves into production, then to distribution, to a purchase phase by the consumer, the operation of the product in the data center, and then ultimately its end of life.
Let’s fast-forward to the purchasing phase. You must determine at the outset whether the product is eco-friendly or not. Demand to understand its annual emissions; perhaps it would require a configuration change. I have personally seen configuration requirements that increase emissions by up to 60%. Conversely, I’ve seen configuration changes that involved low-carbon flash models result in emissions reductions of 60%, all without compromising on capacity or performance.
[Another important thing to measure is the current power consumption of the fleet of products. This information can easily be used to calculate current emissions. I’ll save this topic for another story.]
You might think that the country in which your data center resides has little to do with your carbon footprint, but you’d be wrong. The public electrical grid is often a blend of black (fossil fuel-based) and green (renewable-energy based) electricity, and each country – and sometimes the states within the same country – is different. But typically, a region’s main electrical generation is powered in plants using black energy like coal or nuclear, with green options that come from a mix of wind, solar, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass farms.
As a result, the CO2 emissions from a data center product depends on that mixture or black and green energy your region makes available. In other words, regions that provide greener alternatives can lower the carbon footprint of your data center.
It’s clear, there’s much that can be done to lower the emissions of your data center, including everything from being deliberate about the systems and processes you select, to the energy you choose to run the operation. There is certainly no single path to reducing your carbon footprint, but there are concrete steps that you can take, starting in the data center.