Environmental impact

The ‘greening’ of the data centre is a subject fraught with difficulties. Sustainable development within an environment that has become the engine room of the modern enterprise cannot just be about electricity bills. It is an issue that requires inter-departmental collaboration across the organisation – yet few have begun to take this on board.

For most business leaders, sustainable development within the data centre is still a relatively new debate, which makes it difficult for them to tackle, says Stuart Bowman, director of energy and sustainability at building services group Hurleypalmerflatt. The pressure to act ‘responsibly’ is growing, but while terms such as ‘sustainable development’ have become an idiom in the lexicon of modern business, it is far from clear what the business implications of this green change are.

As Bowman points out, when compared with heavy industry, the environmental impact from the data centre can appear insignificant. There is, nevertheless, a growing body of evidence that points to the amount of energy the data centre consumes – by some estimates it accounts for 2% of total electricity usage. That is sufficiently high to warrant attention.


Stuart Bowman

Grand designs

For Bowman, creating a sustainable IT environment is one in which energy efficiency must be improved at every stage in data centre design; it cannot be an after-thought. “Attention needs to be paid at the design stage, the construction stage and throughout the operation of data centres in the future,” says Bowman. It encompasses not just energy-efficient IT equipment, but looking at where servers and coolers are placed; how heat may be recycled; or inefficiencies minimised.

At present, many IT managers don’t know the cost of the power their data centres consume and certainly don’t lay eyes on an energy bill. While the current situation removes the impetus for change, it is simply untenable, says Bowman. “The price [of energy] is going to go one way,” he warns. Data centre managers will inevitably be held accountable for spiralling operational costs.

While the industry leaders prevaricate, regulators stand poised to intervene, forcing enterprises to become efficient data centre operators. The UK’s Climate Change Bill – already in its consultation phase – looks likely to impose a set of binding emission targets. This would create a level playing field for those environmentally inclined businesses, ensuring that competitors cannot steal a march by being bad corporate citizens.

Such regulation may eventually promote healthy competition between companies to ‘out-green’ each other, suggests Bowman. “It stretches above and beyond compliance. It’s important that some organisations are looking to be better than others,” says Bowman.

Nonetheless, if regulation is put in place that enforces some sort of energy-efficiency requirement or stipulates that carbon footprints must be controlled, business leaders face an audit challenge, says Bowman. Currently there is little agreement on what a standard measure of energy efficiency may look like – although many individual vendors have their own proposals.

Furthermore, different regulatory bodies, either within the European Union or in the US, have made their own tentative approaches to defining and measuring the ‘greenness’ of a data centre. This unhelpful hotchpotch of eco-targets helps nobody, says Bowman, whatever the final requirements look like they “need to be universal”.

Only once the requirements have been decided upon in a collective and unanimous fashion, can businesses start to become more adventurous about how they can adopt environmentally-conscious practices. These could include moving data centres nearer to the coast, to be close to offshore wind farms and sources of hydroelectricity, says Bowman – but no data centre manager is going to propose something so radical until the issues are receiving significantly more attention at board level.

Currently, there are a number of pressures that have forced some people within the enterprise to look at the issue of sustainable development, but it has lacked the top-level buy-in needed. It is like “a three-legged stool at the moment”, says Bowman, one without “a seat on top”. Senior executives must act as the unifying force to drive green issues throughout the enterprise he says – no matter how uncomfortable a seat it may initially be.


Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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