Are cloud data centres a sustainable option?

3 Jun 2021

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With data centres consuming massive amounts of energy, we look at the environmental impact of cloud computing.

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Discussions about cloud computing can often lead to discussions about data storage and data centres.

While data centres provide critical infrastructure for the digital world in which we live, they also consume high volumes of energy. In fact, the data centre industry accounts for approximately 1pc of global electricity consumption and, according to an Eirgrid report, could account for 29pc of electricity demand in Ireland by 2028.

The tech industry’s impact on the planet has been criticised widely in recent years, from the level of e-waste produced to the carbon footprint of digital data.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com earlier this year, digital expert Gerry McGovern said data is growing at unsustainable levels. “We will soon be dealing with thousands of zettabytes of data – truly unimaginable quantities,” he said.

However, industry players are making positive moves to promote better sustainability, particularly when it comes to data centres.

‘There needs to be a greater level of collective purpose between the electricity generators, the distributors and the emerging data-led industries to not only coexist, but benefit from each other’
– HARM JOOSSE

Amazon announced a new 115MW windfarm project in Co Galway last year, which will begin operating in 2022 and will power AWS data centres across the country. And data centre group Host in Ireland recently launched a pollinator plan to address Ireland’s biodiversity plight and help save the bees.

On a broader level, the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact was agreed upon by more than 40 data centre operators and more than 20 national associations to make data centres climate neutral in Europe by 2030.

Harm Joosse, director of business development of cloud platforms at data centre specialist Interxion, said that now is the time for the industry “to be brave, creative and relentless to meet the sustainability challenge”.

He pointed out that 43pc of Ireland’s electricity came from renewable sources last year, surpassing the Government’s target of 40pc. “That is no small feat,” he said. But there is still more work to be done.

“The ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mindset is not going to maintain and grow one of Ireland’s largest export industries [data centres]. It is going to require a greater level of collective purpose between the electricity generators, the distributors and the emerging data-led industries to not only coexist, but benefit from each other.”

Cloud computing’s role

Joosse said the growing trend of businesses migrating to the cloud gives the data centre industry a unique opportunity to become more climate conscious.

He explained that within the data centre industry, sustainability is measured with a set of metrics such as water and power use efficiency.

Enterprise data centres are usually located in rural areas and are typically between 10 and 20 years old, while co-location and cloud data centres are usually located in or around larger cities and are typically much newer. These differences, he said, can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of IT loads in cloud data centres.

A 2013 research paper, funded by Google, revealed that by moving commonly used software applications to the cloud, energy usage could decrease by 87pc. A more indirect sustainability benefit has specifically been highlighted in the last year. Cloud computing enables easier remote or hybrid working. This, in turn, reduces the number of workers commuting, reducing vehicle emissions.

However, while cloud computing may have a lot of environmental benefits compared to traditional data storage solutions, there are still challenges in terms of energy consumption.

The need to keep computer equipment in data centres cool typically accounts for around 40pc of total energy consumption and up to 80pc if the natural climate of the data centre is warmer.

However, there are novel attempts to mitigate this challenge taking place around the world. In Norway, for example, US-Norwegian company Kolos is putting a large data centre inside the Arctic Circle. Kolos said the chilled air and abundant hydropower available locally would help it keep its energy costs down.

Microsoft has also been working on innovative ways to make its data centres more environmentally friendly, including locating one underwater and using boiling liquid to create a closed loop cooling system.

Joosse said there are still challenges to consider when it comes to companies migrating to the cloud, adding that most organisations opt for a hybrid cloud strategy.

“Hybrid cloud enables some workloads to be migrated to the cloud on day one, and other workloads to be migrated at a later date or not at all. Co-location data centres offer ideal ‘landing zones’ in between on-prem data centres and cloud, allowing organisations to exit non-sustainable on-prem data centres today, but take a staged approach to cloud adoption,” he said.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com