Time to follow big techs lead.

Fredrik Jansson reviews how millions of small data centers can create more damage than all the hyperscale facilities.

The Financial Times recently reported that the IT sector (including data centers, telecoms networks and devices) “accounts for 1.8 per cent to 2.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions… according to a report published this month by Lancaster University and Small World Consulting.” (Financial Times 10th February 2021). Many will be familiar with these figures and with the dire predictions of IT eating up the World’s electricity supply whilst contributing as much CO2 as the airline industry, but that does not mean that we should accept them. Clearly there is much work to be done on improving the sustainability of data centers as part of reducing IT’s overall contribution to climate change.

The FT also reports on the great efforts and commitments made by the largest tech companies in the world to fight climate change. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are among those leading the move to sustainable operations. They are now among the biggest purchasers of green power and have also invested hugely in efficiency. Data center output surged 600 per cent between 2010 and 2018, but power consumption only rose by 6%. At DigiPlex we like to think that we were early pioneers of the trend to sustainable data centers. Not only has all the electricity consumed in our data centers been 100% renewable emitting zero CO2 since 2009, but we have partnered with hyperscalers as they seek to decarbonise their cloud services and deliver sustainable digital services to businesses and consumers. However, not only can we not rest on our laurels, but we need to help shift the focus. Increasing scrutiny and consumer activism will ensure that the issue only moves up the Board’s agenda. And that’s not to mention the urgent need for action from everyone in every sector to mitigate the climate crisis.

Time to follow big tech’s lead
Where big tech has led, others need to follow. Latest estimates calculate that by end of last year there were nearly 600 hyperscale data centers worldwide. These are the ones owned or leased by the big tech players and are likely to be among the most efficient, and most sustainable. The most recent estimate of total data centers globally was 8.4 million! Although this number continues to fall as businesses replace aging, inefficient, on premise, data centers by moving to the cloud or colocation facilities, there are still many more of these than the super-efficient, green hyperscale data centers. Although they are small, and individually consume a fraction of the power, and emit relatively small amounts of CO2, in aggregate they make up the bulk of IT’s environmental footprint.

Identifying the problem
Three figures from our own research illustrate the problem. In a survey of Scandinavian businesses, we found that the shift to dedicated data center facilities, where sustainability, as well as efficiency and cost effectiveness are optimised, is slower than it needs to be. We found that in 2020 over half of businesses in the region (53%) still used on-premise data centers and only 8% expected to close down those facilities in the coming 2 years.

The other worrying finding was that, even in the environmentally conscious Nordics, where almost 90% of businesses (89% in Sweden) have declared environmental goals, less than half (42% in Sweden) have set specific environmental targets for their IT operations. Finally, research showed that a significant minority (45%) did not know in which country their data was stored – meaning that they have no idea of the sustainability or environmental performance of the data centers they are using.

What these figures suggest to me is the urgent need to educate all businesses on the importance of measuring and setting goals for the environmental performance of their IT. For all the gains made by leaders like DigiPlex and the hyperscalers, the carbon footprint of the sector will not shrink overall until all businesses act to improve the sustainability of their own IT resources.

Set goals – take action
Measuring and understanding is the first step – adopting those green targets for IT. But real action is also needed. Shifting workloads to the cloud is a great first step. The efficient use of shared and virtualised hardware, well maintained and supported by the latest data center technologies, will not only dramatically reduce the environmental impact of your IT, but will almost certainly lead to lower costs. For applications and data that can’t move to the cloud for whatever reason, can be hosted in colocation facilities where the benefits of professionally managed facilities (often the same ones that host cloud services) combine with ownership and control of your own dedicated hardware. Many businesses are finding that the investment needed to create facilities capable of meeting the demands of high-performance computing, AI, IoT and a host of other technologies driving the digital economy, is simply beyond their capacity. Colocation facilities transform high capital expenditures into predictable manageable operational costs that align with the performance of the business.

Time to put your IT house in order
The scrutiny of the IT industry’s environmental performance is only just beginning. Big Tech has moved early and decisively to help solve the problem and ensure that it is seen in a positive light for its environmental performance. The rest of the industry, and every business that uses IT, now need to follow suit and take seriously the risk that regulators, customers and other stakeholders will act on environmental concerns.

All businesses should be asking themselves three key questions.

  • Do you know where your data is stored and where computer processing takes place?
  • Do you know, and can you measure the environmental performance of those facilities, whether they are owned or leased?
  • Are you making the best, informed choices to minimise environmental impact from your use of IT?

As social, regulatory and customer scrutiny increases on every business, and as digital plays a bigger and bigger role in day-to-day operations it is essential that everyone plays attention to the carbon cost of their IT infrastructure. Asking these simple questions, and getting honest, data-based answers will not only help protect businesses from environmental backlash, but will most likely save them money, and certainly contribute to the essential protection of the environment.