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Internet, Power & Climate Change: Are Data Centres killing Our Planet?

By Raminder Chowdhary

Amadeus Data Centre – Erding, Germany

Emissions by the Information & Communications Technology (ICT) and Financial Services sectors are growing rapidly and estimates are that they would double by 2020. Think of all the corporate travel, the meets and conferences, the huge spend on electronics that may not be the most energy efficient available, the enormous amounts of e-waste that gets generated – the ecological footprint suddenly appears larger than one had thought. Add to this the offices around the globe that need to be lit, heated and air conditioned, the call centres and most significantly the data centres which are processing ever increasing reams of financial and personal data.  As a manager, if your responsibilities include the planning and implementation of a “green” policy for an ICT or Fin Services Corporation, you have quite a task ahead of you. Where do you start? As always – by reminding yourself of the 2 golden clichés:

a) What you don’t measure, you cannot manage and,
b) What you cannot reduce (be certain you really cannot) remember to offset.

It’s time to focus on the main culprit – your organizations data centres. Mega data centres are here to stay and form the backbone of our internet economy. From small server rooms to facilities as large as 200,000 sq. Metres, whether single Corporation owned multiple location data centres or collocation operators, data centres need huge energy to run and not to forget – to keep them cool. Consider the 1.1 Mil sq ft Lakeside Data Centre in Chicago which is a multi-tenant facility having an infrastructure which includes four fibre vaults and three electric power feeds, which provide the building with more than 100 megawatts of power. Grid power is supported by more than 50 generators throughout the building, which are fuelled by multiple 30,000 gallon tanks of diesel fuel. This facility is the second-largest power customer for Commonwealth Edison, trailing only Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Most online companies typically run at full capacity irrespective of the demand. Estimates of power wastage range between 60% – 90% of what they get off the grid. IDC, a leading IT research company estimates that the number of data centres around the world will reach about 8.6 Million by 2017¹. Consolidation, collaboration and large scale facilities are the trends going forward as data management is rapidly becoming a strategic asset rather than a back office facility.

Where is all this demand getting generated? Simple, just consider how connected your family is – your kids are Keeping up with the Kardashians on Netflix, your wife and you enjoy the Economist and Forbes online, your friends are calling you from all over the world on WhatsApp or Facetime and each one of you has a zillion other apps on your smart phones getting periodic updates. A simple google search or a video clip may not seem like doing much harm to the environment. Multiply that several billion times and you end up with the need for backup mega data facilities and networks that are responsible for upto 2% of total global CO2 emissions – nearly as much as the aviation sector and more than the combined emission of Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. A Google search has a 0.2 g carbon footprint, 10 min viewing of You Tube = 1g and a typical Gmail users annual footprint is 1.2 kgs. CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent)². Not alarmed! Consider this – Google supports over 3.5 Bil. searches each day with a carbon footprint³ of 1,766,014 CO2e in 2013 – most of which comes from data centres, Netflix bandwidth usage peaks at around 37% of total internet usage at peak hours and there are nearly 1.5 Billion monthly active Facebook users. Getting the picture?

One thing is certain – the internet has transformed our lives and its magic seems limitless and growing at over 20% per year⁴. The availability of cheap smart phones meant that global mobile data saw a growth of nearly 70% in 2014, video streaming is on the rise, over 3 Billion people have online access and mobile broadband subscriptions is expected to reach a jaw dropping 7.6 Billion by 2020⁵. The growth continues unabated. Recent studies estimate that the collective electricity consumption of our devices, data centres, and networks will jump from 7.4% of global electricity consumption in 2012 to between 7% and 12% by 2017⁶. Hopefully the picture is coming into focus now.

Its time to revisit your “green” policy and focus on your organizations data centres. Do you know your footprint? What steps are you taking to improve power efficiency? Are you ready to make a commitment to go 100% renewable? Be assured, if you are not ready your customers will soon make sure that you either get ready or get out of business. All is not lost. The great news is that most of the major internet companies are ensuring that their data centres (existing and planned) are already powered by renewable coal free energy or have set deadlines to achieve this. Key among them are AppleYahooMicrosoftGoogle and Amazon. This has had a huge impact on investment decisions by utility companies pushing them to focus more on expanding capacity for renewables. A second tier of major data centre operators and internet companies like eBayHPIBMOracle and others have now begun to explore options for increasing their renewable energy supply. Colocation companies (like Lakeside, SupernapEquinixNAP of The AmericasQTS Metro Data Centre, etc. ) continue to lag far behind consumer-facing data centre operators in seeking renewable energy to power their operations. But change is on the horizon.

If you are an ICT or Financial Services company managers with the responsibility of ensuring that your data centre operations are “green”, you need to:

  1. Assess your present and future data storage and processing requirements
    2. Understand the emissions profile of your data centres. Keep in mind that for a given capacity data centre located in a country like India with a 70% share of coal and gas based grid mix, may have a much larger emissions footprint than Sweden, where renewables have over 55% share of total energy production. If you are thinking of a colocation facility or setting up a new data centre, you may want to consider the local grid mix and also the average temperature of the area – cooling data centres is big component of energy used.
    3. If you are already running a data centre you may want to focus on power efficiency, energy ratings of your equipment, e-waste, power sources, etc. If you are looking to setup your own data centre, a comparative analysis between cloud and own data centre and also an in-depth location analysis would be needed.
    4. Be bold and announce time bound carbon footprint targets for your data centres. Your sustainability reports must clearly state your targets and highlight your progress. More significantly, be transparent and do not fear falling short of targets and communicating your learning.
    5. Finally, whatever your residual carbon footprint print, you may want to consider offsetting

Time to get started with an aggressive and planet friendly policy for your organization. Good Luck!

1. http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2014/11/11/idc-amount-of-worlds-data-centers-to-start-declining-in-2017/
2. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/sep/08/google-carbon-footprint
3. http://www.google.co.uk/green/bigpicture/#/
4. Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2013– 2018(2014)
5. http://www.broadbandcommission.org/Documents/reports/bbannualreport2014.pdf
6. Emerging Trends in Electricity Consumption for Consumer ICT, p, 45 http://vmserver14.nuigalway.ie/xmlui/handle/10379/3563

Raminder ChowdharyAfter working for various MNC’s for 20+ years as a supply chain specialist Raminder Chowdhary changed tracks and set up One Earth Foundation – an NGO focusing on conservation of natural eco-systems, preservation of ancient wisdom and environmental education. A regular speaker on various regional and national forums promoting the need for higher levels of corporate participation in social and environmental issues facing us today-Raminder holds Master’s Degrees in Economics and Business Admn. He has successfully implemented projects in the sectors of TK & TCE preservation, special needs groups, livelihood challenges for indigenous communities, water, large scale forest and lakes stewardship drives and engaging students in various ecological initiatives.