Could end-to-end energy management transform data centres into sustainable consumers?

energy management

Hitachi Energy has been outlining what they call a microgrid approach to energy management. The methodology they take is to focus on every component of a data centre that uses power to understand how this level of oversight can deliver the insights needed to improve energy efficiency.

As the energy debate surrounding data centres continues unabated, is a new approach needed that enables data centres to take a more focused approach to energy management?

Hitachi Energy certainly believes this is how data centres will become more energy efficient. They call this approach microgrids. Hitachi’s view is to take a microscopic overview of energy use down to the application level. With this data, practical action can be taken to rationalise energy consumption and put a data centre on a trajectory to becoming more energy efficient.

“Widespread adoption of microgrid technologies can help operators take more control of their power supply,” Dave Sterlace, a strategic account manager for data centres, Hitachi, says. “Microgrids employ monitoring and energy storage capabilities to manage power locally, providing the ability to minimise the impact of regional power outages and disruptions.”

Is the microgrid approach anything new? Practising energy management has always been part of how data centres ensure the power they use is minimal. Indeed, Google recently explained how it now manages power loads at its data centres. However, current energy monitoring is often focused on either the supplier’s or the data centre’s consumption. Microgrids offer a holistic approach that tracks all relevant energy parameters.

Speaking to Digital Infra Network, Roberto Castaldini, global offering specialist for smart power solutions in the ac power line of business at Vertiv, says adaptability is at the core of future energy management for data centres: “The future of energy supply is moving towards a more distributed and flexible model, and the data centre sector is likely to follow this trend with a shift towards local power generation and multiple energy sources depending on the data centre’s location. In addition, data centres will be influential due to their increased use of renewable energy sources.”

The debate regarding data centres as high-energy users is, perhaps, too simplistic. Data centres could actually become critical drivers for the development of new energy sources, but also, new intelligent energy management systems.

Integrated power

Going to the energy marketplace and making bespoke connections to create new sustainable relationships is driving how data centres see their energy management moving forward. With many energy sources and suppliers to choose from, intelligent data centre management must include a more detailed and wide-reaching approach to energy procurement.

A vital aspect of the microgrid approach is the collection and analysis of data. Optimising a substation, for example, requires a new level of detailed insight to enable the data centre to make informed decisions about energy capacity, load requirements, and energy sources.

And data centres are today not just passive consumers of energy. They also play an active role in developing more sustainable energy sources such as hydrogen. Active participation in developing new energy technologies, or improving existing sustainable sources so they can scale, is part of the microgrid philosophy.

Morten Steen Mjels, ASUS server and workstation country product manager, UKI, points to how newer energy technologies will interact with existing sources: “The issue with moving away from batteries is ensuring uninterruptible power supplies. Servers require a constant flow of electronics and for that to happen there needs to be a retention of electricity as the gap between power ceasing and let’s say a hydrogen fuel cell engaging would not be constant, there needs to be some sort of energy storing to ensure a constant flow.

“That is not to say that you can utilise other technologies such as more modern battery technologies (which are currently in development) or supercapacitors in place of the lithium-ion battery would be greatly beneficial for the environment, however, the caveat which also comes with more polar bear friendly and efficient servers is that vendors need to make these options available and actively develop it.”

In addition, data centres need to be rooted in their local energy communities. Massive change has already taken place as renewable energy has expanded across the UK. From solar, wind, and battery storage to using the infrastructure of allied utilities such as water to store energy until it is needed, the energy landscape today and tomorrow’s data centres will be a part of a multifaceted solution with microgrids playing a significant role.

More with less

The insatiable appetite for data shows no sign of slowing. According to research from Danfos, data centres will consume 20 per cent of the world’s energy supply by 2025. It’s no surprise that organisations like the International Energy Agency (IEA) have made recommendations to reduce energy demand.

But moving forward, all data centres must be proactive with their energy management. Taking a multi-channel approach is a journey that businesses must not take in isolation. Data centres, energy producers, the broader community impact of new data centre estates, and the underlying drive for more sustainability, are at the core of the changes that data centres must make.

“As data centres expand, much of the focus in recent years has been devoted to cooling technology,” Marcin Bala, CEO of telecoms network specialist, Salumanus, explains. “However, it is important to remember that while better cooling provides symptomatic relief, it does not necessarily address the root cause of the problem, which is heat generation. The relationship between power consumption and heat output is fairly linear. This means that if you can reduce power consumption, you can directly reduce the heat output and, subsequently, the cooling capacity required.

“For example, take a common piece of hardware used in nearly all data centres: an optical transceiver module, such as the 100 Gigabit Ethernet QSFP28 100G CWDM4. This device consumes around 3.5 W and we have customers that purchase more than 10,000 units every year. We recently developed a third generation of this device that reduces power consumption to between 2.5–2.7 W. If we multiply this 0.8 W power saving by 10,000 units running 24 hours and 365 days a year, power consumption is reduced by at least 70 MW per year.”

Bala also points out: “However, there are even bigger heat savings to be made: As well as reducing the power consumption per device, data centre managers should look at ways of reducing the total number of devices on the network altogether.

“As bandwidth requirements increase, so does the amount of rack space used. The problem is that because most data centres are still air cooled, racks are intentionally underutilised to prevent them from overheating, leading to an unsustainable expansion in the coming years. Given that a standard switch has 32 ports, if we were to install 10,000 100G transceivers, we would need 312 switches. We can reduce the number of switches drastically by upgrading from 100G to 400G connections. This would mean we would only need 78 switches to achieve the same bandwidth.”

The energy landscape is in a state of constant change. For data centres as large consumers of this resource, the part they play in delivering the services they need within an envelope of sustainability is a core driver for the next few years. Data centres that can be proactive now, laying the foundations they need with technologies like microgrids, will be at the forefront of their industry.

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