As a new year of data approaches, we look at the most efficient and sustainable ways to make every watt count.

We can hardly imagine today’s world without social media, e-commerce and other Internet-based services. In other words, a world where ever greater quantities of data need to be transmitted, processed and stored.

This increase in energy consumption is set to grow exponentially, as computationally intensive applications such as video on demand, autonomous vehicles and advanced 5G technology gain wider popularity. To manage this demand, data centers need to implement every possible strategy to maximize their energy efficiency and make sustainable progress a priority.

Just how energy efficient are data centers in 2020?

When ABB entered the data center sector over 25 years ago, major factors driving the market were uptime and reliability. Shortly after, concerns about energy demand quickly stole the show. From 2007 onwards there were claims that the industry was becoming an insatiable energy eater, but fortunately, this turned out to be far from reality.

Despite the digital acceleration and vast proliferation of smart devices and online culture that we have experienced in the last decade, data centers are estimated to consume between one and two percent of the world’s electricity according to the United States Data Center Energy Usage Reporti. Furthermore, a recent studyii found that while data centers computing output jumped six-fold from 2010 to 2018, their energy consumption rose only six percent.

Energy efficiency is the key function when it comes to data centers, and to give an idea of just how energy-efficient data processing has become, if the airline industry was able to demonstrate the same level of efficiency, it would mean a 747 would be able to fly from New York to London on just 2.8 litres of fuel in around eight minutes!

That said, there’s always room for further improvements in energy efficiency, with new technologies making it possible for data centers to do so much more to make every watt count.

Making every watt count:

Key to this is the exploitation of some fairly simple techniques such as running data centers at higher temperatures, using virtualization to cut down on the number of underutilized servers, improved efficiency of modern UPS, and the use of frequency drives vs dampers to control fan loads.

Sustainable growth tactics for 2021 and beyond:

What tactics can provide immediate benefit, and yield significant energy savings in total power usage and cost? We take a look…

  • Minimizing idle IT equipment: One approach to dealing with this is distributed computing, which links computers as if they were a single machine. Scaling up the number of data centers that work together increases their processing power, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for separate facilities for specific applications.
  • Virtualization of servers and storage: Virtualization can dramatically improve hardware utilization and enable a reduction in the number of power-consuming servers and storage devices. It can also improve server use from an average of 10 to 20 percent to at least 50 to 60 percent.
  • Consolidating servers, storage, and data centers: Blade servers can help drive consolidation as they provide more processing output per unit of power consumed. Consolidating storage provides another opportunity. Since larger disk drives are more energy efficient, consolidating storage improves memory utilization while reducing power consumption.
  • Manage CPU power usage: More than 50 percent of the power required to run a server is used by its central processing unit (CPU). Most CPUs have power-management features that optimize power consumption by dynamically switching among multiple performance states based on utilization. By dynamically ratcheting down processor voltage and frequency outside of peak performance tasks, the CPU can minimize energy waste.
  • Distribute power at different voltages: To adhere to global standards, virtually all IT equipment is designed to work with input power voltages ranging from 100V to 240V AC. The higher the voltage, the more efficient the unit. By operating a UPS at 240/415V three-phase four wire output power, a server can be fed directly, and an incremental two percent reduction in facility energy can be achieved.
  • Adopting best cooling practices: Traditional air-cooling systems have proven very effective at maintaining a safe, controlled environment at rack densities of two kW to three kW per rack, all the way to 25 kW per rack. But operators are now aspiring to create an environment that can support densities in excess of 30-50 kW, a level at which air-cooling systems are no longer effective. In these cases, alternate cooling systems such as rear door heat exchangers may provide a solution.
  • Plugging into the smart grid: Smart grids enable two-way energy and information flows to create an automated and distributed power delivery network. Data center operators can not only draw clean power from the grid, they can also install renewable power generators at a facility to become an occasional power supplier.

A focused approach for the future:

At the beginning of the last decade, the International Data Corporationiii (IDC) estimated that 1.2 zettabytes of new data were created in 2010, up from 0.8 zettabytes the year before. The amount of the newly created data in 2020 was predicted to grow 44 times that to reach 35 zettabytes, rising to an incredible 175 zettabytes of new data being created around the world in 2025.

It’s clear from this digital acceleration that data will continue to break boundaries and drive innovation, and with that create new challenges for sustainable progress. As we approach 2021, we believe we will see the quest for efficiency go into even higher gear.

Already, we are moving away from a purely return-on-investment mindset to a culture of incremental efficiency and a Six-Sigma type commitment to driving out waste.

By adopting a focused approach, and investing in the most effective technologies, data center operators can make the most of the opportunities the new year will bring and make every watt count.

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About the author

Dave Sterlace

Dave Sterlace is the Head of Technology for Data Center Solutions at ABB, and has 20+ years of experience in data center power, automation and critical power.
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