Combating the Climate Crisis Effect on Data Centers
Here's a look at the impact of the climate crisis on data centers and what you can do about it.
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It is an observable fact that the average temperature on the surface of the Earth is increasing. What humans do with this information today will directly impact the future quality of life and condition of infrastructure when they get there.
Humans spent $212 billion on data centers in 2022 and multiple industries reported double-digit growth in their data center spending, with health care and pharmaceuticals (13%), education (13%), and computing and IT services (11%) leading the way. Other notable entries include finance and banking (8%) and engineering and architecture (7%).
In fact, most industries depend on continuous access to data centers to function. What does Earth’s rising temperature mean for the future of data centers, and what can you do about this symptom of the larger climate crisis?
Examples of Climate Change Affecting Data Centers
2022 brought several high-profile stories about climate-related data center shutdowns:
In July 2022, Google acknowledged a temperature-related cooling system failure at its europe-west2-a zone data center. The failure rendered dozens of its services unusable.
Also in July, Oracle released a memo about multiple services in their U.K. South (London) service territory being unavailable. Engineers attributed this outage to extreme temperatures.
In September 2022, Twitter lost its data redundancies when high temperatures rendered its primary data center in California unreachable.
These are high-profile examples, but small businesses relying on on-premises, cloud, or hybrid data centers need to be safer. Companies like Google and Oracle provide the data storage and processing backbone for a massive portion of the internet and thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses.
Businesses of all sizes relying on data center storage must account for the budgetary needs required to protect internal and customer data. Cyber liability insurance can keep businesses afloat where their data governance is in question, but not every policy will apply to every business or situation. And the world will still need data centers that can withstand current and future climate shifts.
Is it possible to combat the climate crisis effect on data centers? The answer is yes, but it will require knowledge, initiative, and strategic investments.
1. Make Data Centers More Energy-Efficient
The most important step is making all data centers more energy efficient. The observed power usage effectiveness of data centers is on the rise, according to 2022 surveys gathered by Statista. Data center builders and owners should continue seeking improvements to continue this trend. As people collectively reduce their reliance on the power grid during temperature spikes, they make it less likely for data centers' cooling systems to fail and their systems to become unresponsive.
Energy Star — part of the U.S. Department of Energy — recommends taking the following steps, among several others:
Consolidate server resources that see light or intermittent use.
Seek technologies like advanced processors that lower power draw during idle periods or light utilization.
Install power distribution units (PDUs) that reduce power losses and monitor energy use in real-time. According to Energy Star, modern PDUs are 2–3% more efficient than previous-gen models.
Consult an expert to fine-tune airflow and insulation to achieve as much passive cooling as possible. Energy Star claims cheap airflow management techniques can save a single facility $360,000 per year on cooling. This is often as simple as adding insulation between areas of low and high temperatures.
Switch from a mechanical chiller to a cooling tower to achieve 70% cost savings versus chilled water coolers and enjoy the accompanying energy savings.
According to Uptime Institute, 45% of data centers in the United States have experienced the struggle of trying to remain operational during an extreme weather event. Making the facility more energy-efficient is a great place to start, but you may need to take further steps to safeguard it.
2. Relocate Data Centers
Unfortunately, relocating some data centers to alternate locations may be necessary as Earth’s previously reliably cool areas become less so. In an architectural feat reserved only for the biggest companies, Microsoft is exploring the potential of situating data centers underwater to take advantage of the relatively colder temperatures. Of course, doing this creates abundant other engineering challenges to be addressed, like waterproofing.
3. Use Dynamic Cooling Systems
Data centers power the Internet of Things and benefit from it themselves in turn. More and more data centers are installing intelligent sensors to read temperatures in real time, adjust cooling systems to alleviate temperature creep and reduce power demand when it’s not necessary.
4. Throttle Using AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) can help data center operators by using data analysis and logic to throttle down portions of a data center dynamically and proactively shift a data load from one location to another if higher temperatures may impact high-demand servers. AI has a cost-saving role to play in information security and adjacent fields as well.
5. Redesign the Cooling System
Additional retrofits to the cooling system recommended by HVAC experts include installing bigger condensers for chillers and deploying evaporative cooling technologies to shrug off sweltering days without overtaxing the electrical grid. Liquid cooling systems would be a significant help too, but IT teams have yet to utilize them because of the expertise required to install them. They’re efficient and effective, though, so the learning curve could be worth it.
Making the Case for Resilient Data Centers
The planet does abide by certain long-term climate cycles, but the current trends fall outside those expected boundaries and into human-made disruption. Before the worst, though, you’ll lose Twitter. Maybe that doesn’t faze you, but what about losing Oracle’s, Google’s, Amazon’s or Microsoft’s portion of the World Wide Web? Each of these companies helps keep your favorite websites, day-trading apps, ride-hailing services, and streaming channels functioning on demand.
Human infrastructure is now largely digital. Data center professionals need to follow the lead of climate scientists and climate-conscious technologists to keep that infrastructure intact while everyone works to preserve the planet from the worst of climate change.
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