Making a data center more environmentally friendly starts with studying your facility's use of power and other resources and identifying potential changes that can make a difference in the usage levels. That can include various steps, such as replacing inefficient technology assets with newer ones or partnering with green IT vendors to help you create a more sustainable data center.
The overall amount of energy used in data centers is massive. The U.S. Department of Energy says they consume 10 to 50 times more energy than a typical office building in the same floor space and account for about 2% of the country's total electricity use. And in a September 2022 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that data centers used up to 1.3% of the electricity consumed worldwide in 2021. In addition, the IEA said data centers and data transmission networks accounted for a combined 0.9% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
Owners of data centers are being pressured to take an active role in reducing their carbon footprints as climate change becomes an increasingly pressing global issue -- and as environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives in companies become a key measuring stick for customers, employees and investors. Reducing the environmental impact of data centers through green computing can also be beneficial from a business perspective, by reducing energy and IT costs and contributing to broader business sustainability efforts.
As a result, developing green data centers is now a priority for companies across industries and geographic locations. Here are eight green computing practices you can implement to make your data center more energy-efficient and sustainable, with both environmental and business benefits.
1. Track your base energy usage
First, you must know how much power your data center currently uses. Start by tracking overall electricity usage. Then you can dive deeper into the numbers to forecast future use. For example, break your usage down into HVAC, server, infrastructure, network and storage consumption. Once you have a sense of your baseline consumption levels, you can look at ways to improve energy efficiency through better power management and changes in the data center.
2. Right-size your servers
Running all the servers in your data center 24/7 can lead to underutilization. Some servers might only process requests during certain times of the day, while others might run applications infrequently or simply no longer serve a purpose. The result: higher server energy usage than you really need. Server monitoring tools like Zabbix, Netreo and Paessler PRTG Network Monitor can help sys admins track utilization to determine functions that can be consolidated onto fewer machines. You can then virtualize some servers to further reduce their physical footprint and decommission others altogether.
3. Modify the temperature
Data center HVAC systems tend to be designed to use more air conditioning than is really required now. Newer data center assets can safely run at higher temperatures, so the overall temperature can often be kept a little warmer in order to reduce the HVAC load. Of course, you don't want to end up with excessive heat and humidity that can damage IT equipment, so be sure to properly calculate your data center's cooling needs before turning up the thermostat.
4. Rearrange your data center
You can increase the efficiency of your data center by rearranging it based on energy consumption and temperature requirements. Use smart layouts such as hot and cold aisle configurations to group warmer assets together and take advantage of HVAC vent placement.
Such layouts require you to understand the locations of your intake and outtake vents in the facility in order to place assets appropriately. You can then place additional units in hotter zones for supplemental cooling and reduce your overall electricity costs and the demands on your HVAC system.
5. Replace older assets with more efficient ones
Many legacy data center assets use more power, generate more heat and have lower physical tolerances than newer ones. Newer servers, switches, racks and HVAC technologies typically include processors and other components that are more energy-efficient. Install these new assets when appropriate for your data center, such as during equipment end-of-life and sunset processes or parts replacement and maintenance. Again, you can also replace physical servers with virtual ones -- or move some resources to the cloud -- to cut down on the number of physical technologies you use.
6. Invest in smart facilities management tools
IT service management processes require you to gather and store a lot of information about your data centers, including power consumption and data loads. By analyzing that data, you gain insights that can be applied to your environmental control system to optimize asset usage, thus reducing power consumption and HVAC loads.
To help with that, AI-powered monitoring tools can use machine learning to analyze energy data and create a power usage effectiveness forecasting model. Some organizations also use AI tools to autonomously manage HVAC functions in their data centers, along with IoT sensors that feed continuous temperature data to the system. The software then analyzes the data and automatically changes the HVAC system to ensure that temperatures remain at optimal levels at all times. In one example, Google used such technology to reduce energy consumption in its data center cooling systems by 40%.
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7. Investigate green energy technologies
Organizations seeking to reduce the carbon emissions from their data centers can also consider green energy alternatives, such as geothermal cooling, wind power and hydroelectric power. For example, data center services provider Verne Global uses a combination of geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind technologies to power and cool its facilities in Iceland and Finland. Similarly, one of services provider TierPoint's data centers in Spokane, Wash., was built with a geothermal cooling system driven by water from an underground aquifer below the facility. Iron Mountain operates underground data centers in Missouri and Pennsylvania that also take advantage of natural cooling.
Check which green energy options are available to your organization. The development of new, renewable power and cooling methods means you likely can find ways to lower your data center's carbon footprint.
8. Partner with green IT vendors and organizations
Develop business partnerships with IT vendors that offer green technologies, as well as organizations that can help you identify more sustainable IT options.
For example, IT teams can use the U.S. government's Energy Star certification program to find energy-efficient computers, monitors and other products. Also, the Global Electronics Council manages a registry of products that meet the criteria of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) standard. The registry lists servers, networking equipment, end-user computers and other technologies that are "environmentally preferable," according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which funded the development of both the registry and the EPEAT standard.
In addition, you can check the sustainability and energy efficiency levels of IT vendors and services providers through organizations such as CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) and the RE100 renewable energy initiative, as well as ESG ratings agencies that include MSCI, Refinitiv and Sustainalytics.