Managing the sustainability conundrum for future data centres

Digital infrastructure has seen unprecedented growth, and these last few years have been a masterclass in the critical nature of our data centres. Fast forward to today. We see new designs, new approaches to bringing capacity online, and all-new industry challenges. 

One man that is ideally placed to view these changes is Bill Kleyman, a data centre, cloud, and digital infrastructure leader. He was ranked globally by an Onalytica Study as one of the leading executives in cloud computing and data security. He has spent over 15 years specialising in cybersecurity, virtualisation, cloud, and data centre industries. 

Sustainability is one of the most significant changes sweeping the data centre sector. “There are a lot of sustainability conversations within the industry,” Kleyman says. “One of the more recent concepts that came out of an Infrastructure Masons meeting in San Francisco was where we explored the new concept of scope four emissions. These account for emissions saved or avoided outside the product’s lifecycle or value chain.”

Is sustainability a PR problem?

Scope 4 may be too far for many organisations. Still, several credible frameworks are already available that guide how to address this, for example, the Comparative Emissions Working Paper from the World Resources Institute and the Avoided Emissions Framework from Mission Innovation, which are included as acceptable frameworks in CDP reporting. But for Kleyman, there is a more fundamental question regarding sustainability. “Is sustainability real, or is it just PR?” he muses. “I love and hate that conversation because there are a lot of contrarian views in this industry, and people just like to disagree. I think people must have opposing thoughts, but people do not like being told what to do. 

“When a new acronym comes out, like ESG, people think this is just another idea or marketing campaign. But at the root of it, you must ask yourself a straightforward question, whether you agree with it or not. Is sustainability the right thing to do or not? If you feel that it is not, I do not know what rock you are living under, but I think it is a fundamental question to ask yourself and your organisation. I do not care if it is a sensor that goes into a PDU, a rack, or if you are building a modular data centre, you must account for sustainability because there is an element of responsibility for everybody. You do not have to try and knock the walls down here; there are little incremental changes that can go a very long way.”

The data landscape is an ever-changing situation. The latest change to the operating paradigm is ChatGTP, where architectures are fundamentally changing how we interact with data. The sustainability element is that a single Google search can power a 100-watt light bulb for 11 seconds, and a single chat GPT instance is 50 to 100 times more potent than that. “How do we create a sustainable ecosystem that is moving forward?” Kleyman questions. “The massive shift in computing resources coupled with challenges with vacancy in the United States, with power constraints out in the Northern Virginia area. We are entering a new space of compute, and suddenly, we have these sustainability questions that concern us.” 

The sustainability imperative

There are two significant challenges the sector faces. First, the problem is understood, and data centre executives want to become more sustainable. The challenge comes from its financing, equity, and investment side. “It is very market-oriented,” Kleyman says. “If you wanted to build a sustainable data centre in Wyoming, somewhere in the middle of the country, you might not get any funding for it, as it is too expensive and risky compared to traditional power. So while these data centre leaders do want to build more sustainably, they are handicapped by the kind of financing that they can get.  

“There is a level of maturity in understanding what sustainability is in cloud computing. We have gone from this overarching rainbow of understanding to a much more contextual piece of what sustainability is. Many scholarly studies, including universities in and out of Europe, have specifically showcased how organisations focusing on sustainability do better financially and in the business world. When we look at the executive’s and leadership’s understanding of sustainability, they get it. And the question is, how do I apply it to my industry? Some of them are investing in proper data infrastructure management and better levels of visibility. Others are deploying more sensors to have more inline information on how their facilities are upgrading and embracing remote work.

“I do not think everybody gets it, but I feel like we are getting to a point where people understand it is essential, but how do I apply it to my business? How do I create a positive outcome because there is a cost associated? You have to invest some money to make this happen; the alternative is scary. We live in a world where you have to look at sustainability through a different lens, and executives get it; the question is now, how do they apply it?

The NIMBY conundrum

The term not in my back yard (NIMBY) has plagued many sustainable developments, from developing onshore wind farms to building low-carbon infrastructure. Data centres are not immune to that sentiment. Recent plans to build data centres in the US sunbelt of Nevada, Arizona and California have been beset with opposition. “When I was at Switch, we had the same conversations around being too loud or you are going to be disrupting our neighbourhood,” Kleyman adds. “We had to show them that our systems on the outside operate between 50 and 60 decibels. 

“Arizona and Nevada are starting to pass legislation that will outlaw evaporative cooling, and what do you do with that? Suppose you are going into direct and not evaporative systems. In that case, the challenge is that you will draw 30-40 per cent more power to cool your infrastructure, which means you will not lose any water through evaporation, but now you must draw more power; how do you balance this? 

“I understand this NIMBY challenge, but data centre organisations moving forward will be a lot more efficient; we will see different types of power sources like the nuclear power data centre. NuScale has achieved its safety certification from the National Nuclear Commission, and the United States has started building small modular reactors (SMRs). I am a big proponent of that. 

“I get why the mayors and city leaders want to say they do not want a data centre in my city, but they are big job accelerators. Data centre facilities offer jobs and massive economic development; it is the second largest job multiplier in the United States. So put a data centre facility in your backyard. You will improve your state’s and community’s digital footprint and create good-paying jobs, which increase local wages, local economic activity, individual income, and sales tax.” 

The future of sustainability

Looking into the future, two technologies excite Kleyman: liquid and immersion cooling, and nuclear power. “The average density in our data centre is about 7-12 kilowatts per rack, in either hyperscale or large colocation,” he says. “I am excited to see how immersion cooling will change the paradigm and density. I am also enthusiastic about the hybrid approach between air-cooled and immersion liquid-cooled because I think there is a combination of where those architectures can live together. I came from a data centre organisation in Switch, which touted upwards of 50- 55 kilowatts per rack in an air-cooled environment; now, you are seeing this complete shift in how we work with this liquid cooling architecture. 

“The other technology that I am excited about is nuclear power data centres, which I see happening in the next five to ten years, if not sooner. The amount of investment dollars from private equity firms and the Department of Energy is fascinating. This is coming from somebody who lived in Ukraine. I was born there and was around when Chernobyl happened, so I still think nuclear power is cool. So that is something I am excited about, the capability to source new green energy architecture, where we can take these nuclear power data centres and build an SMR with 300 MW of campus power to resemble a city and a digital facility.” 

Kleyman is giving a keynote presentation, ‘Up, up, and Away! Data Centres in 2023’ at Data Centre World, in Austin, US, between May 8th and 11th, where you will hear about the latest findings from the all-new AFCOM State of the Data Centre Report.

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