Understanding the sustainability challenges of data centre infrastructure

Digital infrastructure is constantly striving for greater reliability and efficiency in the face of a rapidly changing world, which finds itself more reliant on technology in order to function. At no point has this been more apparent than during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which forced people to work from home and interact with others remotely, requiring the use of digital technology to overcome the obstacles this presented. 

“On the one hand, COVID has accelerated the digital transformation,” says Rob McKernan, senior vice president of ITD Europe and global IT channels at Schneider Electric. “We have been talking with CIOs around the world about the new technologies they are adopting to improve bandwidth for things like video conferencing.

“But, on the other hand, in Europe there have been delays in terms of getting data centres up and running. I would say that the pipeline of new data centres in Europe is at an unprecedented level at present.”

Despite these short-term delays, however, the importance of data centre infrastructure is leading to a rapid expansion of the industry. Alongside this, conversations around the reliability, efficiency, and sustainability of digital infrastructure are also taking place.

Conflicting priorities shaping data centre construction and operation

As the competitive data centre marketplace grows in size, so too do the challenges of resiliency, reliability, and sustainability. These vectors of conflict shape the way data centres are constructed and operated during their life cycle. For McKernan, finding the balance between sustainability and resiliency is the biggest issue.

“When you make something more redundant, you become less efficient,” he explains. “I believe that is how companies, and how people like Schneider Electric, can help companies manage these vectors. We see the future of data centres as four key lines – efficiency, adaptability, resiliency, and sustainability.”

Operators and manufacturers have focused much of their attention in the last ten years on efficiency, by optimising cost through prefabrication and standardisation, operation speed, or trying to optimise speed to market.

McKernan notes that, in his experience, adaptability will play a much more important role going forward. “The next one that is coming in, and operators are asking about, is adaptability. If you think about here in Europe, they are still building in Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris, but now they are being asked to look at Warsaw, Milan and Madrid, and there are challenges in working and adapting to new geographies. But there is also the adaptability of the services that have to come out of there with 5G: how does software define and the future of operations workloads?”

Achieving sustainability in hyperscale versus edge data centres

Adaptability is also a topic of conversation which concerns the advent of edge computing, and deploying data centres on the edge. These edge data centres are smaller installations which are deployed on a more local level, but they are quite different in terms of setup and levels of efficiency when compared to traditional and hyperscale data centres. Large operators can build an efficient large data centre, but the edge is very inefficient by comparison.

McKernan notes that, in these cases, remote management is best utilised. Eventually, he speculates that edge sites will be completely unmanned, meaning the future of edge data centres is in complete automation.

Schneider Electric are responding to the opposing trends of hyperscale and edge data centres in different ways, in terms of increasing their sustainability. Their ESS climate change advisory service asks hyperscale operators about their energy procurement, plans to tie in to microgrids, and what their system is for energy and procurement, with a view to maximise renewables.

“I think this is what we are known for in many ways, in terms of helping the client through the design process, and how we set that design up for a very efficient day-to-day operation,” says McKernan. “Within that, of course, is things like how we ensure strong PUE and ensure strong efficiency for the use of carbon and water. Inside of Schneider, we are spending a lot of time ensuring that we bring out the product pieces that are continuing to drive the efficiency of everything.

“I would say the big one for us is efficiency on day-to-day operations. As you know, there are so many more installed data centres, we are working with one client, and they are building like crazy, and in a European footprint, its super large. With the inefficiencies within products, operations, measurement and management of those data centres, there is still a huge opportunity for improvement. I think the overall circular economy, as a manufacturer, is about how we end-of-life our products most efficiently, effectively, and sustainably.”

The future of sustainable data centre infrastructure

In terms of components, future data centre construction and operation will need to take in to account multiple technologies to maximise their sustainability potential. Innovation is being achieved in the world of lithium-ion batteries, for example, with the introduction of the SF63 switchgear among other important upgrades.

Operators must understand how they can become more efficient and more sustainable in their approach. McKernan reveals that he has spoken to many operators who say they are becoming much smarter in data centre operation, encompassing how the IT goes in to the data centre, what effect it has on operation, and providing real-time visibility with regards to power usage.

The data centre of the future, envisioned by Schneider Electric, takes in to consideration the efficiency, resiliency, adaptability, and sustainability of the infrastructure. In order to achieve this, Schneider have focused their efforts on reducing carbon in their design work, energy needs, procurement, and operations.

“Schneider is taking a real lead in terms of the reduction of carbon in the supply chain,” concludes McKernan. “It forms a significant part of our vision to improve overall sustainability, leading to a greener digital infrastructure which we in the industry can be proud of.”

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