Like it or not, data centres are here to stay and their numbers, and their capacity, are increasing exponentially. When Irish company Echelon Data Centres launched in January 2019, with ambitious plans for €1bn of investment across two sites and a stated strategy of 500MW of capacity, across five countries, by 2025, the Irish market comprised 48 operational data centres with 540MW of capacity.

At the end of Q1 2019, those figures had increased to 53 data centres and 600MW of capacity. In total, Irish data centre capacity in planning, under construction or already operational is over 1.3GW.

The growth is driven by the massive growth in the dataverse – the amount of data created each year, expected to reach 1.75ZB by 2025 – which in turn is driven by the billion or more people getting online in developing countries, the Internet of Things (IoT) enabling smart cities, connected dwellings and driverless cars and the development of working artificial intelligence solutions. All these things – internet access, smart devices, virtual assistants – are increasingly seen as basic human necessities.

Of course, all of this data storage and processing capacity is massively power-hungry – in 2018, datacentres were already consuming more than 2% of the world’s electricity. As a general rule of thumb, researchers in the US expect global power consumption to triple in the next five years, with one of the big contributors being the increase in internet-enabled, data creating devices.

The big question, therefore, is how do we square this growth in demand for power with the global imperative to reduce carbon emissions and tackle the increasingly immediate problem of climate change head-on?

The answer, quite clearly, lies in renewable energy sources, efficiency in data centre design, specifically in regard of rack cooling techniques and, ultimately, in innovative new ways of providing power to data processing and storage hardware.

As a starting point, the industry’s minimum benchmark must be to ensure that data centres are powered by 100% renewable energy. This is, of course, already being achieved around the world, but the industry must be relentless in its efforts to make every data centre renewable compliant.

In addition to the focus on making sure that all energy sourced from a national grid comes from 100% renewable sources, we should be looking at adding renewable sources to our sites – wind, or solar, or biomass – and taking responsibility for generating a proportion of the energy we consume.
Where possible, through waste heat recycling, or supplying energy generated on-site to local users, we should aim to provide sites that are more than just consumers of power.

There is no doubt that our clients – the data centre occupiers – will be making conscious decisions to buy into facilities – and geographies – that can demonstrate their sustainability strategies and credentials and use them to promote the green agenda. The more demand that this creates allows data centre operators – given the constant demand for power from their facilities – to form partnerships with renewable power providers helping them create the justification for greater investment in the renewables sector.

Wholly sustainably-sourced power is, of course, just one side of the equation. On the other is the need to become more efficient in the way we use the power. Higher densities will lead to higher running temperatures which increases the need for cooling and the associated power required to run it. These power demands will require greater ingenuity to increase efficiency.

Liquid cooling solutions – full-immersion cooling – are becoming increasingly viable and widespread, and not just for high-density 60KW to 100KW racks. Given the reports of Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratios of 1.05 for immersion cooling, versus 1.35 for air-cooling, the benefits of higher energy efficiency and lower operating costs are there for all.

Clearly, immersion cooling solutions are not yet suitable for all facilities, and in these cases, the geographical location of the data centre facility can make a real difference. One of the reasons for the rapid expansion of the data sector in Ireland is its climate, which is eminently suited to the needs of an industry that relies on cooling for its efficient operation.

Software enabled resilience allied to availability zones can provide flexibility for certain occupiers, that reduces the absolute reliance on N+x redundancy in individual data centres.
More resilient grid design, battery technology and onsite additionality are small steps that begin to show the path towards more efficient design and less reliance on backup generators.

Consistent research and design innovation is another piece of the puzzle – investigating new ways of powering the hardware in the data centre directly, without taking power from the grid and reducing reliance on diesel-powered generators as back-up. We know, from their own blog in 2017, that Microsoft have a vision of building the world’s first gas powered data centre.

Christian Belady and Sean James, from the company’s Cloud Infrastructure strategy team, said that in their pilot, racks were directly connected to natural gas pipes and fully powered by integrated fuel cells instead of traditional electrical gear. “What makes this project so disruptive is how radically it simplifies the process of powering servers and how this could almost double the energy efficiency of data centres—all while reducing costs and improving reliability.”

‘Renewables, efficiency, and innovation’ needs to be our industry’s mantra as we move into the third decade of the 21st century. The world will become more reliant on data and the devices, applications and programmes that generate it and use it to improve the quality of people’s lives. If this is to happen alongside the massive challenge of climate change, then, as an industry we need to adapt and evolve. And do so quickly.

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