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Changing behaviour to create low impact data centres

LSBU researchers have been exploring solutions to the problem of energy hungry data centres, improving efficiency using smart design techniques

Energy hungry data centres

There are currently six billion connected products in our networked world, a figure predicted to rise to 120 billion by 2020. These vast networks are supported by equally enormous data centres, with even bigger energy appetites. In 2015 alone, data centres consumed 416 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy globally.

As the demand for data centres increases so will the demand for energy, which raises significant concerns over their sustainability. If nothing is done, data centres pose a direct threat to our efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

There are currently six billion products connected in our networked world, all supported by data centres, and predicted to rise to 120 billion by 2020.

Data centre metrics

“One of my colleagues from the interdisciplinary centre for Storage Transformation and Upgrading of Thermal Energy (iSTUTE) management committee, Dr Robert Tozer, was working for Hewlett-Packard (HP) and recognised that the sustainability of data centres was, and is, an issue of concern. At that time BREEAM were developing some metrics on data centres and Robert realised that there were some shortcomings,” says Dr Deborah Andrews, Associate Professor of Design.

“As a result, an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Cooperative Awards in Science & Technology award was obtained by Robert and Professor Graeme Maidment to undertake research with PhD student Dr Beth Whitehead. I became involved as first supervisor and to lead the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) aspects of the project.”

In 2015 alone, energy-hungry data centres consumed 416 terawatt hours of energy globally.

Developing a tool for smart design

Dr Whitehead and Dr Andrews took the project forward by developing a tool for designers and engineers that helps minimise the whole-life (combined operational and embodied) impact of data centres through smart design of the buildings and the equipment that they house. A number of factors affect the impact of the building, which can be designed to reduce operational energy inputs for air conditioning through use of fresh air and ‘free’ cooling. We have also considered the environmental impact of water-based cooling systems and the embodied impacts of this type of building as well as the electrical and electronic data processing equipment.

“The work we have conducted has been in parallel with LCA work on refrigerated retail display cabinets, and further work is now ongoing regarding data centres, commercial refrigeration equipment and blinds and shutters, in particular with respect to introducing a Circular Economy (CE),” adds Dr Andrews. “I have also recently obtained a research sabbatical to help me continue my work, with a new focus on reducing the materials footprint of data centres, servers and other electrical and electronic equipment, because it is usually refreshed every three years. A CE for this equipment is vital to minimise its environmental impact.

Changing the behaviour of data centre managers

“I am also engaged in research on drivers of change in user behaviour. We are already investigating the behaviour of supermarket procurement teams regarding perception and purchase of remanufactured as opposed to new RDCs, the use of blinds as passive energy-saving products and their impacts on thermal and visual comfort and related occupant productivity. We will also be investigating data centre managers’ behaviour as part of the drive to reduce their overall life cycle impact.”

Research impacts:

  • The work demonstrated that it is important not just to look at the carbon footprint, but at the overall environmental footprint of data centres: land use, water use, water contamination, and waste treatment. This arose through the use of LCAs, which consider emissions to air, soil and water, and look beyond narrow climate impacts. Parameters include damage to health, disability affected life years (DALYs), impact on resource availability, and ecosystem quality.
  • It is important to consider the impact of the physical constituent of data centres, and not just their operational energy consumption.
  • Dr Robert Tozer left HP and set up Operational Intelligence with several colleagues, with the aim of making data centres more sustainable. So far they have organised a number of knowledge exchange forums, and Dr Andrews has participated in two.
  • Dr Whitehead completed her PhD and is now working full time for Operational Intelligence.
  • Dr Whitehead’s research is driving a more comprehensive assessment of data centres’ environmental assessment, including use of water.
  • The research yielded a bespoke LCA tool for measuring the potential impact of data centres, available to clients at Operational Intelligence. This tool measures the operational energy and associated impacts, alongside the effects of the physical elements of data centres.