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Efficiency gains have kept data centre power usage flat over the last decade

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While the demand for data has increased rapidly in the last decade, massive efficiency gains by data centres have kept energy use roughly flat, researchers have found.

The most detailed model to date of global data centre energy use has been developed by a team from Northwestern University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Koomey Analytics.

But Eric Masanet, who led the study, said the data does not mean that policymakers can rest on their laurels.

“We think there is enough remaining efficiency potential to last several more years,” he said.

“But ever-growing demand for data means that everyone—including policy makers, data centre operators, equipment manufacturers and data consumers—must intensify efforts to avoid a possible sharp rise in energy use later this decade.”

Filled with computing and networking equipment, data centres are central locations that collect, store and process data. As the world relies more and more on data-intensive technologies, the energy use of data centres is a growing concern.

“Considering that data centres are energy-intensive enterprises in a rapidly evolving industry, we do need to analyse them rigorously,” said study co-author Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“Less detailed analyses have predicted rapid growth in data centre energy use, but without fully considering the historical efficiency progress made by the industry. When we include that missing piece, a different picture of our digital lifestyles emerges.”

To paint that more complete picture, the researchers integrated new data from numerous sources, including information on equipment stocks, efficiency trends, and market structure.

The resulting model enables a detailed analysis of the energy used by data centre equipment (such as servers, storage devices and cooling systems), by type of data centre (including cloud and hyperscale centres) and by world region.

The researchers concluded that recent efficiency gains made by data centres have likely been far greater than those observed in other major sectors of the global economy.

“Lack of data has hampered our understanding of global data centre energy use trends for many years,” said co-author Jonathan Koomey of Koomey Analytics. “Such knowledge gaps make business and policy planning incredibly difficult.”

Addressing these knowledge gaps was a major motivation for the research team’s work.

“We wanted to give the data centre industry, policy makers and the public a more accurate view of data centre energy use,” said Masanet. “But the reality is that more efforts are needed to better monitor energy use moving forward, which is why we have made our model and datasets publicly available.”

In 2018 Microsoft launched a five-year trial to build a data centre under the ocean that can be cooled cheaply by pumping heat out into the water.

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