The Environmental Impact of Data Centers

With smartphones and wearables making way into our day-to-day lives, data usage has grown exponentially. And so have the number of data centers. As per a study by the IDC, today there are over 8 million data centers worldwide. Technologies like Blockchain, big data analytics and IoT have spurred the demand for new data centers in India that come with a cost.

Impact of Data Centers on Environment

Each year, data centers hog gargantuan amount of electricity and generate carbon emissions as much as the entire airline industry. The energy usage by data centers is doubling every four years. While it is difficult to forecast how much technology will grow in the days to come, it has been estimated that if left unchecked, data centers could consume over 10% of the global electricity by 2030. This would increase the production of gas emissions and e-waste to insurmountable levels.

Recently, a British intelligence group Informa surveyed hundreds of IT leaders on their data center practices. The survey led to some interesting findings. While the environmental impact of data centers is becoming a major concern, energy efficiency ranks fourth (last) on the list of priorities when setting up a data center. In addition, most of the respondents did not have any idea of the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of their data centers. For those who don’t know, PUE is the chief measure of data center efficiency.

So, in short, data centers in India are wreaking havoc on our environment and this can continue unabated if proper measures aren’t taken. That’s why some forward-thinking leaders have begun to take steps in this direction.

Data centers are highly environmentally unfriendly

For a data center to remain functional, it needs to be housed in a temperature-controlled environment that has to be maintained all round the clock. As per a recent study, 40% of the energy consumed by data centers is spent in cooling IT equipment.

This consumption can be curtailed by migrating the data center to a country with a naturally cold climate (e.g. Siberia) but building all data centers in cold locations isn’t realistically possible. Besides, many countries have passed laws that require citizen data to be stored on domestic servers, so every data center cannot afford to store data in a foreign location.

The environmental impact caused by data centers in India goes beyond electrical consumption. The coolants used in these facilities are made of hazardous chemicals. The batteries used for creating backups to deal with power shortages contaminate soil and water when they are disposed of afterwards. Diesel generators used in these facilities pollute air.

Power supply is a critical issue for data centers; data centers have to ensure an uninterrupted supply of power at all costs. This comes as a cost to the environment.

Reducing the environmental impact of data centers

Major players in the data center industry are making strides towards renewable energy and trying to make their facilities more energy-efficient. Google is using cold sea water for cooling their data center facilities in Finland. Data centers traditionally use cooling systems that consume electricity and burn carbon. As a matter of fact, Google officially reached its target of 100% renewable energy for both data centers and office operations in 2017.

Along similar lines, Facebook is using wind energy to energize its data center in Iowa, USA. Apple has been powering all its data centers with renewable energy since 2014. As a result of these initiatives, the technology giant has been able to reduce greenhouse emissions from its facilities worldwide by 54%.

Companies are also turning to artificial intelligence to combat energy emissions. Google, for instance, has been using DeepMind AI to analyze how their data centers work and hone them accordingly. DeepMind’s neural networks analyze the data from cooling systems in these data centers to predict how different combinations of actions will impact energy consumption. The AI then finds out the actions that will minimize energy consumption while satisfying certain safety constraints. These actions, once verified by the local system, get implemented. These AI systems have allowed Google to reduce its energy consumption by over 30%.

Data center monitoring systems have also played a crucial role in reducing emissions. Remote sensors installed in key locations measure temperature, power and humidity and immediately notify when there is deviance in any of these factors. This allows the concerned authorities to take action in real-time, allowing the infrastructure to functional optimally. Even a small glitch can be fixed within no time.

The Final Word

With technology giants like Google, Apple and Facebook trying to create smarter solutions for data centers, other organizations are expected to follow in their footsteps. Their efforts will pave the way for greener data centers in India and elsewhere and allow future generations to breathe cleaner air.