Mega Data Centers Seek Ways to be More Energy Efficient

by Jeff Sheehan, on Jul 22, 2016 9:58:59 AM

In the first of a two-part series, we’ll address the challenge mega hyperscale data centers (mega centers) will have in addressing public opinion with their use of vital resources, particularly power and water and the generation of these resources.  


With the explosive growth of computing “as-a-service,” digital storage needs, mobile devices, application design, content streaming, data scalability and the Internet of things, there will be an ever-increasing demand for data centers. 


Millions of square feet of raised-floor facilities are being built by the largest cloud-computing providers — the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook — and by such major colocation developers as Equinix, QTS, CyrusOne and Digital Realty. All are tethered to an insatiable demand that shows no sign of abatement.


Growth meets the environment

Data center operations are universally known for their use of enormous amounts of power to run computing requirements around the clock. They must address the perception that they are inefficient operators of limited resources.


This issue is compounded by growing societal pressure on companies to be better stewards of our resources. This pressure comes from a variety of sources — environmentalists, investors and the U.S. government. It will have a continued impact, forcing operators to run much more efficiently.  


The efficiency message permeates our society, from the fuel-efficient cars we drive to the way we build new homes and businesses to consume less energy. As consumers, we have the option to do business with those corporations that espouse “green” initiatives.   


Mega data centers make operational improvements

The operators of raised-floor facilities are, out of necessity, leading the drive to increase efficiency.


They are using a measurement of operational efficiency called the Power Usage Effectiveness or PUE. PUE is the ratio of the total amount of energy used by a computer data center facility to  the energy delivered to the raised floor and computing equipment. A lower number is better with 1.0 being the lowest possible (and virtually unattainable) ratio though the PUE in the latest generation of mega centers continues to drop.


A PUE of 2.0 is common in older legacy data centers but best practices are seeing ratios approaching 1.2. Google has achieved a PUE of 1.21 and other groups are striving to achieve sub 1.10 PUE. 


Managing heat generation is critical as cooling systems account for roughly 30% of energy consumed. Computer chip advancements that increase computing capability results in lower wattage for such operations, thus lowering the cooling necessary to battle heat rejection.


Another best practice is improved data center infrastructure management (DCIM), which continues to drive efficiencies in the raised-floor environment. Such simple design considerations as locating these mega centers in colder climates can greatly decrease power consumption as a colder climate results in a lesser need for massive cooling systems.   


Driving these efficiencies is clearly a business directive as 70% of all 2015 workloads were processed in cloud data centers. Cloud data center traffic is expected to increase four-fold compared to traditional data center traffic. 


Renewable strategies in the mission critical world

As recently reported in the online Data Center Knowledge: “The cloud is getting greener. The data center industry has become one of the largest buyers of renewable power.” Choosing to source power from renewable sources — hydro, wind, solar and biomass — is becoming more common.   


The Data Center Knowledge report also noted that corporate buyers contracted for almost 3.5 GW of new renewable energy power purchase agreement capacity in 2015. The report notes that this was the first time that data centers procured more renewable power than what traditional utilities procured in a year. Also recently, researchers released a report on total energy use by U.S. data centers that indicates that data centers’ explosive energy use has begun to plateau at around 70 billion kWh.


Google (see chart below) is a leader in renewable electricity as its corporate objective has been a carbon neutral impact, which it has achieved since 2007. Choosing renewable power sources does well to drive mega center operators’ message of being conscientious of the environment to quash critics. This will become increasingly more practical as the renewable energies are easier to procure and their costs drop.



Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance


It is important to keep in mind that amount of power utilized by data centers of all sizes in the United States amounts to approximately 2% of of the country’s power usage. The mega centers with their added efficiencies consume far less of the total amount associated with all operating data centers. These efficiencies have slowed the rate of energy consumption dramatically with mega centers compared to the growth of energy consumption with large data centers in the prior decade.  



Companies will need to figure out how to balance environmental concerns over energy consumption while operating commercially viable mega data centers.  To support demand, more of these centers will be built. Yet, it appears that these enterprise and multitenant colocation operators are making long strides in the right direction.  


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