Last reviewed 28 February 2012

The cloud continues to integrate itself into business infrastructure but, with the drive to reduce costs and maintain high corporate social responsibility, the environmental credentials of data centres are now under the spotlight. Dave Howell reports.

Is the cloud green?

For many enterprises, the arrival of cloud computing has been a revelation. The ability to use SaaS (software as a service) principles coupled with off-site data storage and manipulation has offered lower IT costs and improved efficiency. However, in a world where greenwashing is a persistent danger, the cloud has had to ensure its own environmental credentials are constantly improving.

The world is data hungry. International Data Corporation (IDC) has predicted that data storage will expand rapidly to reach over seven zettabytes by 2015. This is the combined total of digitally stored information, and illustrates a clear trend: for data centres, expansion is front and centre of their roadmaps. However, this expansion is increasingly being influenced by the desire of businesses to ensure the cloud-based services they use are sustainable.

Data centres are also power hungry. The US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that data centres consume 3% of the total US electricity generating capacity. Apple’s new $1bn dollar iDataCenter in North Carolina is estimated to require as much as 100MW of power, equivalent to the usage of about 80,000 US homes or 250,000 European homes. These levels of power consumption notwithstanding, from an environmental perspective, the cloud does deliver a number of advantages. If the predicted uptake of cloud-based services continues, over 85 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) could be saved by 2020, with energy saving in the US alone of an estimated $12 billion by the same year.

IDC’s John Gantz and David Reinsel state, in their annual study of the data universe: “While cloud computing accounts for less than 2% of IT spending today, IDC estimates that by 2015 nearly 20% of the information will be ‘touched’ by cloud computing service providers — meaning that somewhere in a byte's journey from originator to disposal it will be stored or processed in a cloud.”

Energy overload

Cloud service vendors and the data centre operators have been under pressure for some time to deliver improved performance, but within a green framework — something that may be far from easy to deliver. Cisco noted: “Today’s digital consumer continues to ask for better processing performance, more storage space, improved access and lower latency, causing IT vendors, under constant cost pressures from shrinking IT budgets, to focus increasingly on optimising their solutions. However, innovation has limits where the physics of power and cooling mechanics are concerned. Therefore, it is important to understand that IT infrastructure performance correlates directly to the size, weight, power and cooling requirements of a given solution.”

Balancing the need of the expanding data universe and the environmental agenda demanded by consumers, the data centre sector is taking practical steps to become more environmentally conscious. A new report from Data Centre World reveals that 61% have adopted server virtualisation, 71% have replaced inefficient equipment and over two-thirds deploy solutions to optimise cooling and airflow.

However, the research by the organisers of Data Centre World 2012 also uncovered a lack of communication between management and facilities teams. Nearly three-quarters of management within UK data centres admitted to not consulting with their facilities teams on energy requirements before making equipment purchases. This lack of informed decision-making could cost the sector dearly, particularly as the CRC (formerly known as the Carbon Reduction Commitment) legislation came into effect in April last year.

John Hatcher, Data Centre World Conference Director, said: “With energy costs rising and the introduction of the Government’s CRC legislation, which aims to cut carbon emissions by 80% (of 1990 levels) by 2050, it is good to see that many data centres are moving towards greener technologies such as server virtualisation. However, the lack of communication within facilities teams is a concern, and with budgets tight because of the stalling economy, it is surprising that server virtualisation rates are not higher.”

Data centres can lose up to 96% of the energy coming into the building, losing efficiency in three key areas: cooling the room, cooling the servers and keeping servers idle (utilisation rates as low as 10 to 20%). One of the major issues when considering the environmental impact of data centres was the lack of universal metrics. In January 2010, a number of key guiding principles were agreed. Power usage effectiveness (PUE) is a measurement of the total energy of the data centre divided by the IT energy consumption. The problem is that most data centres are unaware of their PUE or do not have a strategy in place to achieve a stated PUE target.

Green data shoots

Certainly, plans are in place to move data centres to more environmentally responsible energy foundations. Google has signed a 20-year power purchasing agreement with a wind energy company. Next Generation Data claims to have a 100% renewably powered data centre in Newport, Wales, and i/o Data Centres has installed 5000 photovoltaic cells on the roof of its 580,000 square ft facility in Phoenix, Arizona that will generate 4.5MW of the facility’s power requirements.

In November 2011, IBM opened the first solar-powered array designed specifically to run high-voltage data centres in India. The array is spread over more than 1800m2 of rooftop on IBM’s India Software Lab in Bangalore. The solar array can provide a 50kW supply of electricity for up to 330 days a year, for an average of five hours a day.

“This solar deployment, currently powering almost 20% of our own data centre energy requirements, is the latest in the investments made at the India lab to design an efficient and smarter data centre”, said Dr Ponani Gopalakrishnan, Vice President, IBM India Software Lab. “Ready access to renewable energy in emerging markets presents significant opportunities for IBM to increase efficiencies, improve productivity and drive innovation for businesses around the world.”

In addition, Stefan Haase, Divisional Product Director, Data Cloud Services, InTechnology, said: “At InTechnology, we have invested in two key power-saving schemes: We use cold aisle containment, which ensures that only the racks themselves are cooled and not the whole data centre. We also utilise external air-cooling for approximately 330 days a year and only use artificial air-cooling for the remaining days of the year. The combination of both ensures power efficiency that is superior to the vast majority of data centres in operation in the UK today.”

David Palmer-Stevens, Systems Integrations Manager EMEA at Panduit, also pointed out that, when handled correctly, cooling technologies can deliver significant advantages: “Stulz cooling units use EC motors in their air conditioning units, where the fans use variable torque. Traditional data centre air-conditioning units use fixed-torque motors. If the client can fix all their cold air leaks and reduce the airflow requirement by 20%, with fixed-torque motors the electricity consumed reduces by 20% as well. If you deploy air-conditioning units with variable torque motors and reduce the load by 20%, then the electricity consumed is reduced by 50%.”

Environmental futures

The data centre will become an even more important component of every organisation’s infrastructure as the cloud continues to permeate every aspect of IT management. In its last report, Greenpeace concluded: “Our ability to measure and compare the environmental performance of data centres has been significantly hindered by the lack of transparency within the sector. The limitations of industry-adopted metrics like PUE & DCiE speak only to the efficiency of data centre infrastructure relative to energy demand, but not to the overall resource impact or even the amount of energy needed for a particular computing activity. [However,] recent efforts have been made to develop additional resource-based metrics that speak to the carbon intensity (CUE) and water utilisation (WUE) of a data centre.”

Chris Smith, Sales and Marketing Director, on365, concluded: “The data centre is increasingly the focus for the need to deliver greater value from IT at lower cost. The challenge for IT managers is to improve operational efficiency and deliver availability and scalability, with fewer resources. As today’s IT infrastructures are complicated, they need innovative ways to gain an overview of operations and the implications for cost, business continuity, etc. New approaches such as data centre infrastructure management (DCIM) are becoming a popular trend for facility managers to monitor their power usage and cut back on carbon emissions.”

Paul Halsey, founder of CarbonZeroIT has stated: “While there are building standards that address how efficiently data centres use electric power, there is currently no ‘use phase metric’ for carbon emissions generated by the services that a data centre produces. Nor is there a standardised industry metric. There is no real way to judge how clean a data centre service is. This leaves the market almost no way to differentiate on the basis of ICT-related carbon emissions. There is work being done in this area by organisations like the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which plans to introduce a broad range of guidance next month.”

It is vital to note that focusing too closely on the data centre that supports the cloud services in use can miss an important consideration. As companies attempt to reduce the amount of carbon associated with their activities, they will inevitably move increasingly to cloud-based platforms. However, as the Greenpeace report points out, the generation of the power that the expanding landscape of data centres is using has not so far been addressed in any great detail. Some data centres are looking at renewable power supplies, but these are far from the mainstream. The cloud is the future of IT, with the cloud’s green credentials also improving. With new technologies and metrics now being used, data centres should have a green future.