Provides a summary of data center sustainability best practices, including advice and recommendations to data center operators.
The analyst team producing cloud and data center research at Omdia has been on the road since early September. We have been contributing to industry events, visiting data center sites, and meeting with C-suite executives. Sustainability is the single most discussed subject, but actions and expectations vary significantly depending on who you speak to. These variations mirror the broad, global conversation currently underway at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) conference in Egypt. In this brief report, Omdia’s cloud and data center analyst team provides a summary of our multi-disciplinary observations on data center sustainability with practical advice and recommendations.
As partners of and advisors to leaders in the technology industry, Omdia has observed eight rules followed by the companies making sustainable decisions in the quickest and most effective way:
- Sustainability is not a non-value-added cost. A common misconception in the industry is that making sustainable choices carries only a cost. Omdia’s observation is that it can drive significant monetary savings. Renewable energy can be cheaper than fossil fuels. Furthermore, setting up a microgrid can be more cost-effective than purchasing electricity from the grid in the long term. Reducing electricity consumption by optimizing IT equipment and physical infrastructure also carries a significant monetary benefit.
- Switching to renewable energy is not enough to reach sustainability goals. Sustainability thought leaders in the industry recognize that Scope 3 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions represent the biggest challenge. As shown in Figure 1 below, these are associated with the supply chain—GHGs emitted during the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of goods, services, and assets. Focusing data center sustainability efforts solely on the procurement of renewable energy neglects the fact that there is a global electricity shortage and every industry needs to reduce its electricity use.
- Efficiency is not sustainability and sustainability is not efficiency. Focusing only on creating an efficient data center without tackling problems like electricity and water source also misses the sustainability mark. An efficient but coal-powered data center is not sustainable. Equally, overusing renewable energy might appear sustainable on reports, but doing so harms the planet by cornering the rest of the market into using fossil fuels. Embracing the circular economy and reusing old IT equipment that is less efficient could have a net negative impact on a company’s GHG emissions. Therefore, it is important to test scenarios and go for those that have the maximum impact.
- Taking action requires significant investment in data accumulation and analysis. Appointing a chief sustainability officer is great, but this move must coincide with broader action across every department and employee. It is important for the organization to provide resources like data and employee time to maximize the effectiveness of a dedicated sustainability team.
- A lone wolf strategy would not work. A company’s largest impact on the environment stems from the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of the goods and services it purchases from others. This means the company cannot control its environmental impact on its own. Similarly, even if a data center operator wants to procure renewable energy, it might not be available at the data center’s location. That is why partnerships are key to becoming more sustainable; it is important to work with different organizations as needed, from governments and the public sector to utilities and technology manufacturers.
- The discussion is part of a much broader environmental, social, and governance (ESG) conversation. At Omdia, we focus on environmental sustainability when discussing the topic of data center sustainability. However, this is part of a bigger environmental, social, and corporate governance conversation that includes conflict materials, human rights, health and safety, diversity and inclusion, ethics, and compliance. Addressing issues in these areas is key to enabling all humans to safely coexist on Earth for a long time.
- Sustainability is not a one-off event. Sustainability thought leaders in the cloud and data center industry share one common trait: they have embraced a culture of continuous optimization and improvement of their efforts. Typically, they would start by addressing the low hanging fruit. While doing this, they would ramp up R&D efforts to tackle the harder-to-address areas. A continuous discussion and review process can also enable the uncovering of previously undiscovered issues.
- Many services that enable sustainability are available and affordable (high ROI). Free and paid advisory and consulting services can be utilized to become more sustainable. This includes a constantly evolving software ecosystem that enables the collection and reporting of actionable data. Services that facilitate the deployment of renewable technologies like solar-powered microgrids, for example, do not always come with a high price tag. Omdia recently discussed the topic of energy as a service, which tackles this specific problem (see the link to our “Schneider Electric advocates for the smart electric grid” report in the Further reading section).
Figure 1: Data center sustainability elements and practices Source: Omdia
These eight simple rules are followed by sustainability thought leaders. They should be applied during every stage of a data center’s lifecycle, from planning, design, procurement, and construction to commissioning, operations, and retirement of old equipment.
Apart from cost savings and helping the planet and future generations, acting in a sustainable way can create a significant competitive advantage for data center operators. According to end-user survey data, clients favor partners that embed sustainability in their products and services.
“The data center industry’s race for sustainability and net zero carbon emissions looks like a sprint” (November 2022)
“Schneider Electric advocates for the smart electric grid” (October 2022)
Colocation Services Breadth: A Critical Selection Criteria (February 2022)
“Smart grid ready UPS for an even more sustainable data center” (August 2021)
“Data centers: A force for good that is getting even better” (April 2021)
Vlad Galabov, Director, Cloud and Data Center Research