Are smaller data centres intrinsically more sustainable?

As the trend for smaller out-of-city data centres continues, the flexibility these new services offer over the massive hyperscalers is attractive for post-pandemic businesses that need agile data services. But can these compact data centres provide the required services within a sustainable infrastructure?

Location, location, location has been the mantra often connected to property ownership. In the context of data centres, is a shift towards smaller out-of-city edge facilities offering highly focused services enterprises now need to innovate?

Businesses are evaluating every aspect of their processes – and cost centres – as they look towards their post-pandemic future while refocusing on their customers. A significant component of their strategic planning is how sustainability is supported, expanded, and critically, expressed.

The current Equinix 2022 Global Tech Trends Survey clearly illustrated how vital sustainability has become, with 69 per cent of respondents stating sustainability is a core driver for their businesses. As data centres continue to be a critical component of the digital infrastructure companies rely upon, sustainable data centre services have climbed to the top of the strategic planning agenda.

Data centres also exist in collaboration. Business leaders are assessing every aspect of the services they buy, including how they physically access their data centre. FuelGenie, for example, found that all established locations for data centres now have traffic congestion that has a negative impact on their ability to access these services.

Franek Sodzawiczny, founder and CEO, Global Technical Realty, believes size only matters if the focus is always on sustainability: “There are two answers here, innovative sustainability and sustainability. It does not need to be innovative to be valuable. The principles of sustainability are not size dependent. Initially, the client needs to relate to the use of power and removal of heat, and these principles do not change – it is how this is provided and reused that is important. There is no difference between the large data centre or small data centre’s ability to complete this efficiency and sustainability to the same level.”

For Roman Khavronenko, co-founder, VictoriaMetrics, smaller data centres offer businesses the opportunity to innovate: “The trend towards smaller, out-of-city data centres presents an opportunity for businesses to increase their flexibility and sustainability. As costs rise, it is important to analyse the energy consumption of data operations and consider different ways to reduce impact. Ultimately, by gaining a deep understanding of data flow and identifying essential data, businesses can make changes to ensure energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint.”

Relocating data centres to out-of-city business park locations offers enterprises the opportunity to build the bespoke data services they need to support hybrid working, fluid supply chains, and the demands their customers are placing on their companies to deliver innovation at speed. Of course, all this is under the umbrella of sustainability which has become a key differentiator for customer loyalty and advocacy.

Compact and boutique

Businesses assessing their data needs and how this impacts data infrastructure can also see how network structures are changing. Edge computing is rapidly expanding to influence how data networks will be built. The smaller footprint of edge facilities enables them to be more agile and offer levels of sustainable services that can be unprecedented. By 2026, over a quarter (27 per cent) of IT infrastructure will be deployed at the edge, according to Vertiv.

Joris Verdickt, segment vice president, edge and enterprise end users Europe, Schneider Electric, sees edge computing as fundamental to the future of IT infrastructures. “Our own calculations found that deploying one hundred-thousand (100,000), 10kW data centres at the edge would create a power consumption of 1,000MW for the IT energy alone. At a PUE of 1.5, these systems could also emit an equivalent of 800k tons of CO2.

“However, if each edge facility were standardised and designed for a PUE of 1.1, the total amount of CO2 emissions would be reduced to 580K tons annually. That’s a significant contribution towards an organisations’ IT sustainability goals. Customers can also design their solutions to be more aligned with their sustainability ambitions, embracing circular economy principles to make sure the products they purchase are not manufactured in a way that adversely affects the environment.”

New colocation data centres are being built with a new set of priorities. Located out of the city, the freedom this can deliver to design bespoke services speaks volumes about how enterprises are now buying data services. Smaller data centres have been able to weather better the supply chain issues plaguing their larger counterparts, for example.

ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) drives many decisions for business leaders and colocation service providers. They are coupled with adopting BREEAM standards in the construction of facilities and paying close attention to power consumption – meeting ISO 50001 energy management standards with low PUE ratings and designing with low emission (Scope 2 and 3). In addition, facilities with smaller footprints illustrate how they offer agile services and are also resilient – another critical component of post-pandemic business development strategies.

Sustainable opportunity

The hyperscalers will always have their place. However, intelligent design that supports the stated environmental goals of their tenants is shaping data centre design and location. “As enterprise infrastructure moves toward cloud distributed application delivery, the data centre itself is being transformed,” Gartner says in its report ‘How to Evolve Your Physical Data Centre to a Modern Operating Model’. “As a result, I&O leaders must transition to a hybrid model mindset where the presence of an on-premises data centre is no longer the primary driver for infrastructure decisions.”

Also, the built-to-suit model is clearly a trend as data centres cater further for specialist clients. With fewer constraints on the planning, design and construction of new data centres sited out of cities, the future is sustainable data centres built to meet the latest environmental challenges their tenants are placing on them.

The drive to zero carbon is also changing the data centre landscape. However, it’s too simplistic to argue that smaller out-of-city estates are naturally more sustainable as Verdickt explains. “With regards to whether smaller data centers can accelerate this goal more quickly than their larger counterparts, that remains to be seen,” he says. “Edge data centers can of course be designed for high efficiency, but today, members of the hyperscale and colocation communities – those operating the largest data centers globally – are also leading the way when it comes to sustainability.”

The mini data centre

Do smaller, out-of-city data centres offer greener services? “Smaller data centres mean they can be designed as part of redevelopment efforts, reusing redundant building stock,” argues Amanda Brock, CEO of OpenUK. “By building these projects into existing buildings or redeveloping exchanges to add more functionality the build supports a circular economy and creates Sustainability efficiencies. As we see more edge computing deployments, this model will bring compute and services closer to users which will be beneficial for both the user and provider as well as meeting this more sustainable model.”

Embedding smaller data centres on the edge within communities is seeing traction. The need for more dynamic data networks to support the ecosystem of devices coming online that businesses and consumers will be using requires an edge network to support their connectivity. A practical by-product can be the reusing of heat, for example, generated by data centres across the communities they are embedded within.

Taking a holistic approach is a clear trend as businesses look to their data centre partners to become essential components in their own broader sustainability initiatives. Hyperscalers will continue to offer core mass storage and compute services, but when specific services are needed to enable businesses to innovate at speed, out-of-city facilities could be a better option.

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