IEMA Sustainability Impact Award Winners for Circular Economy 2020, Techbuyer discuss the impact of data centres in part two of their series on this topical issue.

In the first part of our digital sobriety series, we explored how IT equipment is significantly contributing to the world’s digital energy consumption increase. We also explored digital sobriety is a pragmatic way to prevent the explosion of our digital environmental footprint.

But how does this apply to data centres, and why is changing our behaviours in this sector so important?

What are data centres, and what is their environmental impact?

Data centres are big buildings or groups of buildings that are used to house computer systems called servers, which are responsible for transmitting and receiving data to keep our online services, video streaming and e-mails running and backed up. In other words, we rely on data centres whenever we use the internet or send a message.

The data centre industry is predicted to grow by 500% by 2050, and approximately 120 million servers will be delivered between 2019 and 2023. According to The Shift Project, data centres are responsible for 19% of energy consumption within the digital sector, which is the second largest contributor after terminals. So, making the most of our existing technology and limiting our purchasing of new is crucial within data centres.

The manufacturing cost of these devices is high, but for now we are going to focus on the use phase of data centre IT hardware. The use phase, which starts once your IT devices have reached your facility and are plugged in, contributes to scope 2 emissions. A simple way to envision this is your IT devices will use the energy available in your area, which in most cases required fossil fuels to produce.

The ‘Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety’ takes a pragmatic approach to climate change targets. It states that digital sobriety ‘is not sufficient to reduce digital environmental footprint – it only prevents its explosion’. So to bring global temperatures down, we must make sure we are doing everything we can to maximise energy efficiency within the digital sector.

Creating energy efficient, carbon reduced data centres

Hyperscalers including Microsoft & Google are both striving towards ambitious carbon targets. Microsoft is aiming to become carbon neutral by 2030, predominantly by assessing its supply chain and attempting to have a carbon footprint of cloud based services (including the manufacturing cost of equipment).

Reuse is a message that we have been supporting at Techbuyer since our launch in 2005. By buying, refurbishing, repairing, upgrading, or selling IT hardware, we extend the life cycle of IT equipment to maximise client budgets. This is an alternative to the traditional ‘make, use, waste’ model which actively contributes to the circular economy.

To reduce energy emissions, switching to a greener energy supplier can help. Alongside this, increasing energy efficiency within the servers is key. The choice of IT hardware has a huge effect on energy efficiency. In fact, a European study recently carried out on public sector data centres found that 40% of servers were over 5 years old, and were responsible for 66% of energy usage, but generated just 7% of compute power. Leaving those machines in place would cost the data centres a huge amount of money and carbon emissions, with little return.

However, replacing these machines is complex and requires an understanding of individual configurations, makes, and models of servers. Many people have the misconceptions that the latest generation is always the most energy efficient in all situations, and that the same generation of server is equally efficient from all manufacturers no matter what the use case. This is where the latest industry research can help.

What the data centre industry is saying

Techbuyer carried out a two year research project with the University of East London to analyse IT energy efficiency in the data centre. The result was using over 400 pre-configured server records and 1400 pre-configured CPU records to analyse existing infrastructure, calculate the optimum number and configuration of replacement servers, and report on best solutions for cost and energy efficiency over time.

The research, recently published in the IEEE Transactions on Sustainable Computing, proved for the first time that not only were refurbished machines equivalent to their new alternatives, but also that an immediate past generation could outperform the latest generation with refurbished component level upgrades. Whereas traditionally the advice was to replace IT hardware often with new equipment, the IEEE findings turned received wisdom on its head by demonstrating that since 2015, refreshing with refurbished servers can actually be more efficient (as well as cost-effective).

The Interact tool, which optimises energy and materials efficiency for businesses, is now on the market. However, there is more work to do optimising the networks and software applications that partner the servers.

Stay tuned for part three…

In the final part of our digital sobriety series, we’ll be talking about the barriers to making sustainable IT decisions such as buying refurbished, and what the industry is doing to reduce them.

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the contributing individual, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated.

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Techbuyer Sustainability Team

Techbuyer is a sustainable IT solutions provider with offices in the UK, North America, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand. Techbuyer helps businesses maximise their IT budgets by supplying cost-effective new and quality refurbished servers, storage, memory and networking equipment from over 150 brands including HPE, Dell, IBM and Cisco.

It sells a large range of enterprise IT hardware, and also buys used parts to turn them into high quality refurbished IT equipment. You can find out more about the company here.