Build resilience into future data centres - Hindustan Times

Build resilience into future data centres

ByHindustan Times
Jan 02, 2024 11:02 AM IST

This article is authored by Anshul Yadav, advisor, telecommunications sector at Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

We live in an age of hyperconnected communities, economies, and worlds. Data centres (networked computer systems for storage, processing, and distribution of large amounts of data) are the vital hubs connecting society, corporations, and governments. The climate crisis and impending disasters pose a significant risk to the critical resources needed for operating these data centres, making them highly vulnerable. Resilience of data centres hence is not just critical for the seamless continuity of telecommunications but also for the other indispensable elements in the modern society.

Digital data(Getty Images)
Digital data(Getty Images)

The resources required for the functioning of data centres are classified as either tangible or digital. Buildings, water, energy, computer gear (e.g., servers, cables, storage and network switches), and people are examples of tangible resources. The digital assets include both data and applications. Data centres require the redundancy of energy and connectivity resources to function as all physical assets are susceptible to harsh weather and the climate crisis.

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The sustainability of the data center is essential for stakeholders. Service providers like NTT, Equinix, and BT Global Services have not just implemented sustainability measures but also marketed their data center platforms and solutions to clients. Building resilience is essential for sustainability, and this phenomenon manifests in top-tier data centers. These data centres have the highest level of security and the least downtime. A breach of security in these centres could cause irrevocable damages to businesses – 50% of businesses cannot recover from the breach of their data. Today, world-class top-tier data centres exhibit remarkable resilience and aim for sustainability in their processes and operations.

Several information services are utilised by data centres, including email, video, social media, computing, online shopping, and collaborations. Multiple IT devices housed in data centre facilities, which deliver these services, consume electricity, and produce heat. The heat generated necessitates cooling, requiring additional cooling equipment and energy. In 2018, the data centre industry consumed 205 terawatt-hours of electricity, accounting for 1% of the total energy produced worldwide in 2020 (Masanet et al.). The energy consumption projections for the sector further indicate an increasing trend. The International Energy Association predicted a constant growth in the energy demand of hyper-scale data centres (which can host up to hundreds of thousands of servers) compared to traditional and cloud data centers (non-hyper scale) (Ref. Figure 1).

Figure 1: Demand for energy by data centers from 2010 to 2022 (Source: International Energy Association)
Figure 1: Demand for energy by data centers from 2010 to 2022 (Source: International Energy Association)

Most electricity is consumed by cooling systems and servers, followed by network and storage equipment. Since 2010, internet users have increased manifold, driving up demand for data centers. Between 2010 and 2018, worldwide IP traffic rose tenfold, and it is anticipated to multiply due to the use of AI and IoT (Artificial Intelligence and internet of things) across nearly all industrial sectors. These factors will increase the energy requirements, entailing an adequate response from a sustainability and climate standpoint.

Given that data centres are power guzzlers, one of the greatest obstacles for service providers is locating sustainable energy sources. These businesses are already exploring sustainable energy sources and investment opportunities in renewable energy. Data centres have transitioned to renewable energy sources, which satisfy between 45 and 40% of their energy need. For instance, NTT intends to power its data centers exclusively with renewable energy sources by 2030.

This can be challenging, given the location of existing data canters’ and their capacity constraints. Furthermore, obtaining renewable energy from utility service providers can be a major factor, but on-site renewable energy can be a viable choice.

Strategic cooperative ventures with commercial power generation businesses are another option for renewable energy sources being explored by data centers. In Maharashtra, India, NTT is commissioning a 100-megawatt captive solar power plant to power its data centre.

In the United States, North Carolina is exploring the prospect of fuelling electricity generators with hydrogen. It also claims to be the first data center in the world to utilise hydrogen fuel cells for backup power. Given the requirement for enormous energy consumption and sustainability goals, data centre operators prioritise location planning for new facilities. An ideal location will at the very least provide protection against hazards, be easily accessible, and have enough flexibility to adapt to future business growth. Affordable and adequate renewable energy options can significantly improve the economic viability of data centres and location planning can play a major role in the resilience of data centres.

A comprehensive plan for decarbonising the entire supply chain and data centres needs to be initiated for ameliorating the sustainability performance of the data centres. Energy efficiency must be improved across the complete spectrum of processes. Data centre OEMs have already started using innovative technologies to optimise power usage and boost energy efficiency.

Moving forward, the service providers must engage in conversations on global sustainability and power efficiency. Data centres have had a favourable impact on the efficiency of digital infrastructure. Large data centres facilitate online trade and eliminate business travel, reducing their environmental impact despite their enormous power usage.

The data centre sector must make holistic efforts towards powering buildings entirely by renewable energy. Large data centres reaching this milestone may pave the way for resilient and grid-positive data centers to achieve broader sustainability goals.

Finally, the sector must assess potential sustainability and energy efficiency hazards. There may need to be additional energy-efficient IT devices and cooling equipment to maximise efficiency. Global use of information services, computing technologies, and AI-enabled services is projected to increase. Consequently, timely and adequate investments in renewable energy for data centres will become increasingly essential.

This article is authored by Anshul Yadav, advisor, telecommunications sector at Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

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