The Equinix 2022 Global Tech Trends Survey (GTTS), released earlier this year, drills down into the latest trends across the digital infrastructure industry. Among them, of course, is sustainability. Rapidly accelerating global digitalisation, driven by business and consumer demand, is fuelling exponential growth in interconnection bandwidth. Data centres play a critical role in digital transformation, yet consume significant amounts of natural resources.
Arno van Gennip, VP of global IBX operations engineering at Equinix, says that pursuing sustainable innovation to improve energy efficiencies and reduce environmental impact is now a key driver for the industry as it prioritises the need to contribute to the global effort to slow climate change.
“There is further motivation for data centre operators to act, as customers and partners are now actively seeking sustainable suppliers to connect their businesses. According to a 2022 report by 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, sustainability is a key factor for enterprises evaluating colocation providers, with 79 per cent rating it as ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’.”
The 2022 GTTS found that 69 per cent of tech decision-makers globally indicate that sustainability is now one of their organisation’s most important drivers, and 65 per cent say they will only work with IT partners who can meet key carbon reduction targets. This includes Equinix themselves, with van Gennip citing the company’s commitment to become 100 per cent climate-neutral across Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030. In 2021, the business reached the significant benchmark of 95 per cent renewable energy consumption, which was achieved in part by utilising a variety of renewable energy sources based on local availability. In addition, van Gennip says that the company is addressing their Scope 3 value chain emissions through supplier engagement and green building design.
However, there is much more work to be done. “While we acknowledge there has been positive progress across the industry, Equinix continues to innovate and invest in upgrading its existing data centre portfolio with new technologies to ensure it reaches its ambitious net-zero target before the end of the decade,” says van Gennip.
Surprising findings from the 2022 Global Tech Trends Survey
Equinix’s latest Global Tech Trends Survey demonstrates the need for companies to commit to sustainability to deliver continued business growth and maintain their competitive advantage in a global marketplace. IT leaders are now balancing their digital infrastructure needs with environmental responsibilities when reviewing their IT strategies, with science-based targets providing the additional, auditable incentive to meet their sustainability commitments.
Beyond this, greater ecosystem collaboration to improve standardisation across EDG reporting is key to helping consumers, employees and ecosystem partners make more conscious and comparable choices. Alongside technology, education and trusted information will continue to be core drivers for behavioural change.
For van Gennip, one of the more surprising aspects of their survey is that more than three out of ten IT leaders (31 per cent) did not see sustainability as a key business priority. This is despite climate change warnings from the global science community and a rise in unprecedented weather events.
“Industry efforts to proactively introduce sustainable practices are increasing and we now need to build on the current successes to maintain momentum,” argues van Gennip. “At Equinix, we continue to identify opportunities for technology advancements to make our business strategy and customer impact greener, and we do this by investing in modern technologies to leverage the most energy efficient cloud and virtualisation platforms to host our digital infrastructure. This reduces our reliance on inefficient legacy infrastructure and equipment.
“We are also improving our environmental sustainability targets through better lifecycle tracking of our infrastructure assets from the cradle to the grave, by ensuring optimisation, recycling and reuse of obsolete hardware and software.
“I hope that over time, and with growing awareness and support, we will see more IT decision makers recognising the urgency of moving to a more sustainable business model.”
It is clear that sustainability must now be front-of-mind for every industry leader and technology decision-maker in order for them to not only build more environmentally sustainable data centres, but to support enterprises and organisations to achieve their own climate-related goals.
Sustainability trends driving future sustainability
One of the ways in which tech leaders can drive sustainability moving forwards is through innovation, which is the key to unlocking the technological advancements required for the industry to reach net-zero status.
van Gennip highlights Equinix’s ‘Data Center of the Future’ concepts, which were designed alongside partners in the Co-Innovation Facility (CIF) in Washington DC. The CIF enables partners to work with Equinix on trialling and developing new technological advancements. It is hoped that these innovations, such as identifying a path to clean hydrogen-enabled fuel cells or deploying more capable battery solutions, will be used to help define the future of sustainable digital infrastructure and services globally.
Among the technologies being developed in the CIF are generator-less data centres. Working in partnership with Bloom Energy, Equinix is testing solid oxide fuel cells as a potential replacement for traditional diesel generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units. This work could mark the first step towards a cleaner, more efficient primary power source for data centres.
The company has also joined the EcoEdge PrimePower consortium, along with six other companies, to support the further development of low-carbon fuel cells. In December 2021, the consortium’s joint proposal received a grant of €2.5 million from the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, part of the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission.
The fuel cells use a unique tri-fuel design, allowing them to consume whichever fuel source is locally available: natural gas, green hydrogen or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Each of these fuels can be transported over existing pipelines, meaning the fuel cells can be easily integrated into data centres without expensive infrastructure upgrades.
Replacing traditional generators with alternative power solutions such as fuel cells will not only reduce carbon emissions, but also cut capital expenses, shrink data centre footprints – allowing them to be deployed easily in densely populated areas – and minimise time and resources required for maintenance.
Equally as important is the investment in research and testing in liquid cooling technologies. In the past, traditional air-cooling methods were sufficient to fully meet the cooling needs of the data centre industry. However, as technology has advanced, the hardware needed to support that technology has increased in power density. This means that air cooling alone may no longer be enough, particularly in the case of new power-dense technologies like AI.
According to Equinix, liquid cooling adoption in the data centre industry has thus far been limited by a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario. This means there are two sides that must act before widespread liquid cooling adoption can become feasible: hardware manufacturers must commit to building liquid-capable servers at scale, and colocation providers must commit to supporting liquid cooling from a practical and mechanical perspective.
Working with ZutaCore in the CIF, Equinix is testing highly efficient rack systems that can cool 100 kW or more per rack with a compact, waterless design. These high-density liquid cooling systems are designed to optimise energy and water usage, while shrinking the footprint of data centre facilities.
The company is also collaborating to help address the hardware side of the equation as part of Open19, an open-source hardware project that includes a variety of industry leaders supporting the development of a new ‘plug-and-play’ coupler for liquid cooling systems. The hope is that creating an industry-standard design capable of supporting all major liquid cooling techniques – immersive, single phase and dual phase – could help lower the barrier to entry for liquid cooling adoption across the industry.
Other examples of sustainability innovation include intelligent power management, where sensors are deployed to identify potential energy efficiency opportunities and leverage software management platforms to adjust accordingly; modular ‘green-by-design’ construction processes, which increases the speed at which data centres are built while allowing for decoupled energy platforms capable of supporting multiple energy sources and greener energy storage; and heat recovery, which diverts waste heat from customer equipment to be reused in community heating networks.
“There are many reasons to be optimistic as the industry explores and invests in the sustainability agenda,” concludes van Gennip. “Finding solutions to reduce power consumption and looking at ways to incorporate renewable energy sources is no longer an add on, but a fundamental requirement.”