Green cloud data storage concept

Why data centres need to establish a green agenda

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With the increase in demand for cloud capability to store data showing no sign of slowing, the future of connectivity must have sustainability at its core.

The upcoming COP 26 UN climate conference (to be hosted in Glasgow) provides a good opportunity to examine how the technology industry is approaching net-zero targets. While the pressure on businesses to be at the forefront of the green transition is growing, it’s critical for those operating in the technology sector to not only lead by example, but also to help their customers bring about positive change.

There are many factors that data centre companies need to take into consideration on their green journey. At the operational level, we need to scrutinise our approach to day-to-day issues such as waste management, water use and local pollution control. These challenges are difficult as it is, but it becomes even more challenging to map out strategy and ultimate goals for a long-term vision.

For instance, planning data centre capacity can often be problematic. As traditional planning cycles account for requirements that last around a decade, balancing long-term goals given the lightning-speed of technological innovation is incredibly complex. Nevertheless, a greater emphasis on sustainable and social responsibilities associated with the running of scalable estates means efficiency gains at data centres are a top priority.

Furthermore, measuring carbon emissions generated by these facilities might often be unclear and collecting tangible numbers can be an issue. These challenges in monitoring and gathering information about the actual footprint can lead to unfeasible promises about sustainability.

That said, as part of the net-zero journey, businesses should aim to set science-based targets that are accredited and regarded as the industry standard. Becoming sustainable means that an organisation is equipped with methodology to measure their actual carbon footprint as well as monitor the progress made towards those targets. The approach should be designed to directly address universal goals such as those set at the Paris Climate Agreement. This prevents sustainability efforts from being purely a market positioning initiative and drive an authentic change within and outside the organisation. Credibility is key and science-based targets help with this.

Ensuring that an organisation does its best to be a green ally might not be enough to achieve market-wide shifts. As businesses operate within ecosystems with numerous stakeholders interacting on different levels, organisations are bound to be impacted by each other’s policies and actions. That is why one of the main obstacles for companies is relying on these other organisations’ commitments to environmental, social and governance (ESG).

Purpose-built, efficiently designed and sustainable support from the cloud and data centre space is key to creating a greener technology ecosystem. Sustainable data centre operations will help businesses that aim to boost their ESG credentials require partners that not only understand their technical and operational needs, but also have measurable net-zero ambitions and policies in place.

The data centre market has been viewed as a contributor to the climate problem due to its perceived high energy consumption. Today, the demand for hyperscale solutions to support remote work has grown exponentially. Some might say that the power usage these centres generate means it is not the most environmentally friendly method.

However, mass migration online resulting in growing volumes of data that companies generate and process actually has the potential to drive the transformation to a lower-carbon world. As the need for cloud capabilities to store data will only increase moving forward, the future of connectivity must have sustainability at its core.

Companies do need physical space for their servers and cloud storage to run necessary applications such as internal drives and virtual communication. Without dedicated data centres, businesses would need to facilitate their own spaces, making them much less efficient and much less sustainable than one all-encompassing purpose-built site. These purpose-built sites are often designed to be much more sustainable and resource efficient.

It’s important to think of data centres as facilities which store tools that otherwise would have been kept elsewhere, instead of seeing them as incremental source of power consumption. It's technology that focuses the required power into a single building, rather than distributing it across a number of other sites. Creating such purpose-built facilities also increases the possibility of applying self-generation of renewable power.

Sustainability should be at the top of the agenda of every business - not only around awareness events, such as Earth Day. All forward-facing leaders need to constantly review and improve green initiatives. Creating an ecosystem that delivers responsible supply chains as well as implementing transparent environmental performance targets are the vital steps to underpin business action for the future.

Scott Balloch is director of energy and sustainability at Colt Data Centre Services

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