Charting a course towards sustainable operations within the challenging colocation market

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In the first of a series of articles on the growing colocation market, we spoke to Cortney Thompson, CIO, and founder of Lunavi, to find out how the drive for sustainability is faring amidst the pandemic’s ongoing challenges and a tightening fiscal landscape

As with many other industries, COVID-19 has delayed some data centre expansion and construction projects. But according to Cortney Thompson, CIO, and founder of Lunavi, the sector remains mostly insulated from factors that affect other sectors. “As hyperscale providers, cloud services, and digital consumption continue to grow, the data centre market follows accordingly,” he says. “Even as Lunavi has expanded further into application-focused services, our data centre services are still expanding, contributing to our bottom line. We have also seen a decent amount of consolidation in recent years as large providers seek to grow their site and client portfolios.”

 The need for digital services is increasing, and that trend shows no signs of slowing. And while those services are often running on virtualised cloud platforms, the cloud itself still requires data centres. “Growth within the data centre market is likely to remain steady, if not particularly explosive,” Thompson continues. “I have seen CAGR estimates between one and five per cent and I would say that seems accurate from what we see at the ground level. Content providers, software as a service and application providers, and data and analytics initiatives will continue to drive this growth for the foreseeable future.

“While hyperscale data centre providers can work on economies of scale that are tough to match in terms of power purchase agreements and R&D into cutting edge technology, we compete largely based on our transformation capability, hybrid cloud architecture, and ’15 minute from a human’ response levels. Even enterprise organisations like to know their vendors by name and get that white-glove service.”

The importance of sustainability 

Lunavi was founded originally as a green data centre provider back in 2007 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They have always practised what they preached to build the most energy-efficient facilities that they could or choose to go the extra mile with small touches like reclaimed wood fencing and zero-VOC paint. “We also punch above our weight in terms of renewable energy procurement,” Thompson adds. “You can find Lunavi on the Top 30 Tech & Telecom List from the EPA alongside much larger companies. 

“I am immensely proud of the fact that we retire renewable credits for over 100 per cent of our annual energy consumption every year, as well as the hard work our team has put in to achieve some of the best Power Usage Effectiveness ratings in the industry at our Cheyenne headquarters, which averages 1.2 PUE or less throughout the year.”

To measure sustainability, Lunavi focuses on critical metrics such as PUE and annual reporting on overall energy, water, fuel, and miscellaneous consumption like batteries or gases used in its fire suppression systems. “The goal is always to minimise our overall footprint even as we continue to grow as a company,” Thompson explains. “The trend has been higher efficiency, adjusted for that growth, thanks to our operations teams making improvements across our eight facilities, from more efficient power distribution units to new generators, to simple hot/cold air separation.

“Power conversion and cooling has an enormous effect on energy and water consumption alike. Many operators do not really consider the water factor, but the water itself has an energy cost to reach the data centre, and if you have locations in the West like we do, you also recognise it as a precious and finite resource. We use free cooling wherever we can with indirect evaporative cooling units. This, running high voltage power with minimal conversion, combined with hot/cold air separation within the data centre floors, are probably the biggest factors in keeping our PUEs low.”

Despite that commitment to sustainability, there remains a concern that not everyone within the sector ranks the issue as highly on their corporate agendas.  According to Thompson, they have a handful of clients whose sustainable efforts put them over the top compared to the competitors. They have found they are seen as a nice value-add rather than a requirement by and large. “There are certainly other customers who ask us for information on our renewable credits or efficiency efforts so they can, in turn, use them for their sustainability reporting; but clients are mostly just happy with the costs savings passed along via our efficiency efforts,” he adds.

Building in sustainability in from the early stages

The design process is, of course, tied very closely to efficiency. In Lunavi’s newest build, they chose to segregate several data centre floors and start by building out just two. “We describe this as ‘just-in-time inventory’,” Thompson explains. “This way, we are not wasting energy heating or cooling the other floors in the meantime. The design itself can also help ensure your airflow is efficient and that you can provide power and connectivity in all the right places with minimal equipment. You can also get smart with design. We are using a water retention area to help fulfil water requirements at one site, especially in emergency scenarios. Over time a new technology becomes proven, and it is then incorporated into future build outs.

“For the build process, sustainability is less vital. We choose to use upcycled or green materials and vendors where possible, but data centres are often simple structures in terms of the materials used. Here we focus on minimising waste and the need to dispose of excess material or toxins.”

Saving energy is often the most sustainable solution

Much of the focus on the sustainability drive for the sector is concentrated on reducing the carbon cost of energy, which is also high on Lunavi’s agenda. Their CEO, Shawn Mills, is often quoted as saying, “The greenest electron is one that is never used.” According to Thompson, that about sums it up. “We try to minimise our power consumption wherever we can,” he says. “We have looked at direct renewable generation, but found it made more sense to retire renewable credits and support adding additional green power to our local energy grids. 

“Like the economies of scale for hyperscale data centres, the power companies can provide more efficient and large-scale sustainable energy generation than we ever could. By relying on them, we do not have to be as concerned about battery storage or other details which are vital to providing 24/7/365 uptime.”

One of the challenges that Lunavi face is working in older facilities which were acquired and were forced to retrofit to reach required efficiency standards. “We also operate in an industry that simply consumes a lot of power,” Thompson adds. “There is no way around that. Energy Star-rated data centre servers and equipment are a good start, but renewable power at a massive scale is the only true solution. We purchase our power off the grid, but we are thrilled to see our investments in local renewable credits go towards the development of new green generation projects which in turn feed that grid.”

One of the biggest roadblocks to greening the energy supply at a data centre is the back-up power systems essential to ensure reliability. “Unfortunately, back-up power generation comes with a high carbon price tag due to batteries within the UPS systems and diesel fuel used in generators,” Thompson concludes. “Data centres cannot tolerate downtime as so many essential services, businesses, and governments rely on digital services. We recycle our used batteries, and we burn the least amount of fuel possible to keep the generators in working order. Since we are a multi-tenant provider, customer contractual requirements often restrict our ability to use technology like flywheel designs. 

“At Lunavi we do have highly efficient UPS design and Green-R-Pad transformers for our greenfield build sites which lower the transformer losses significantly. The UPS systems we use run in eco mode allowing them to run at close to 99 per cent efficiency, while a single 1,000 kVa transformer unit saves up to seven tons of CO2 emissions annually. As we replace batteries we are deploying smaller footprint, longer-lasting batteries which use nickel-zinc and lithium-Ion to replace traditional VRLA, effectively cutting their carbon footprint in half.”

The journey towards a sustainable future digital infrastructure is a long one, littered with obstacles from both a technological and operational standpoint. But as Lunavi has demonstrated some significant results can be achieved if sustainability becomes part of the core DNA of an organisation.

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