Fresh Approaches for a Greener, Smarter and Sustainable Data Centre Ecosystem

Increasing adoption of cloud technologies is leading to robust demand for data centres in Singapore. Data centres, however, are energy-hungry. Efforts to reduce energy consumption have started. At the same time, new ways to go eco-friendly have been studied and tested. 

With the Singapore government’s pledge to cut emissions intensity to 36 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, the ante has been upped. As the first of many steps, SGTech convened an online Sustainability Challenge to determine in greater detail the roadblocks and suggest fresh approaches in the areas of green data centre operations and best practices, smart data centres, and sustainable data centre design and build. 

The Challenge saw over 70 participants from data centre operators, researchers and other experts, regulators, ICT vendors and equipment suppliers. After considering the roadblocks that have hindered a faster pace of greening data centres, the participants offered fresh approaches to advance sustainability in the industry. These ideas include encouraging innovations in data centre designs, manpower development and a forum to share expertise and best practices. For these strategies to work, it requires the concerted effort of all key stakeholders.

No silver bullet exists in the journey to greener data centres. It comprises interrelated components which, when put together, can lead to a breakthrough in creating an eco-friendlier data centre industry. Foremost of roadblocks is the mindset of large corporations who are major users of data centres.  As the discussion below points out, some attitudes can be old-school, prescriptive and resistant to change. They believe in the tried-and-tested, sometimes sacrificing eco-friendly measures in the process. 


(The 3 areas of focus for the Singapore Data Centres Sustainability Challenge: Green Data Centre Operations & Best Practices, Smart Data Centres, and Sustainable Data Centre Design & Build.)

 

Cost savings first, sustainability second

The tussle is often over the dollar instead of sustainability. Big corporations like healthcare, financial institutions and content providers who need data centres, often treat the development of these facilities as a procurement project and thus prioritise cost savings while de-prioritising environmental sustainability. 

Hence change needs to begin with these corporations. A data centre is a physical facility that organisations use to house their critical applications and data. As such, they often have stringent prerequisites for the facility design. Such conditions – sometimes, even tender specifications - are often prescriptive, binding engineers to make decisions that do not favour sustainability. 

They are also very specific on the targets desired; for example, the temperature of the data halls must remain between 24°C and 26°C. Often these targets err on the side of caution when new technologies point to the possibility of warmer data halls. With such rigid design demands, there is little leeway for data centre operators to introduce new sustainability innovations or eco-friendly technologies in areas such as cooling systems.

Also, when it comes to billing for data centre services, power usage is typically included in the monthly fee for small users or pre-determined at a committed level for large users. These charging schemes do not encourage users to save energy. 

New data centre innovations

Given that data centre facilities are mission-critical environments, customers and operators are more careful when adopting new technologies. Availability is the most important measure. Hence, many data centre customers and operators avoid risk.

In this age of data, there is an opportunity to build smarter data centres. More data collected, removing guesswork and managing the risks will add to operational efficiency. Once the data is converted into information that provides, among other things, greater granularity in energy usage, data centre operators can be more proactive in many areas and plan better. 

Then there is the issue of sustainable design. The impending arrival of 5G enterprise applications will exponentially add to the data generated today. Apart from the requirement of more storage, tremendous energy will be consumed when extra computation power is needed to crunch the data collected, which translates to more heat generated. Innovations are required in order to process data at the edge of the network rather than to do everything in centralised facilities. 

Manpower development

New technologies such as AI and machine learning are being infused into equipment. It is timely to reskill data centre engineers so that they can leverage the latest technologies and innovations at work. Upgrading their skills will enable engineers to harness the capabilities of technology to eliminate mundane tasks so that they can tackle more important challenges.
 
With the growth of data centres continuing in the foreseeable future, more specialist engineers for this sector will be needed. It is opportune to consider creating training programmes to build a pipeline of specialised talents to support the growing needs of the industry. For example, data centre design projects would be better delivered by data centre engineers who understand the key requirements and have relevant expertise.
 

(Technical Infrastructure, Energy Landscape Limitations, Adoption & Mindset and Speed of Deployment were the main roadblocks determined by the participants)

 

Platform for sharing information and best practices

To create greater awareness and deployment of new technologies that boost environmental sustainability, a platform where industry members can share and tap into information and good practices would be hugely successful. There are existing information pools which can be included. For example, the Open Compute Foundation project is an organisation that shares designs of data centre products and best practices among companies. Large corporations including, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Google, Microsoft, Seagate Technology, Dell, Cisco, Goldman Sachs, Lenovo and Alibaba Group have also contributed their experience and expertise in this Foundation. 

The Sustainability Challenge also called for more research projects and equipment testing measures for equatorial/tropical climates. Thus far, most of the research and tests have been done in cooler climates. Results of such studies and tests can be shared on the platform.

Renewable energy

Singapore has lesser access to renewable energy due to its geography. It has neither water nor wind power. One approach would be to collaborate with neighbouring countries to develop a regional renewable energy grid that spans from Indonesia to Indochina. Although regional politics could be an obstacle, it is worth exploring because of the efficiencies that it can bring in energy generation. 

(The Sustainability Challenge yielded key first steps in creating an eco-friendlier data centre industry)

Government regulation and incentives

The government has set targets for carbon emission. It can do more by taking the lead in some of the new approaches mentioned above.

In education, the government can consider reviewing programmes at the tertiary level to provide more exposure to different aspects of data centres. It could also incentivise older data centres to upgrade by providing financial assistance or tax credits.

Land lease rules can also be eased to help older data centres with inefficient infrastructure to exit the business if needed. Upgrading these facilities could be costly, making it hard for the operators to justify fresh capital investment. In such cases, it is better to give operators the option to shut down the data centre (and pivot to another business are) rather than have an energy guzzler in operation. However, with data centre land usually leased on a 20-year or more basis, there is no variance allowed. The government could re-look into this situation to consider letting such land to be re-purposed. 

The government can also help define interoperability standards, codes and regulations for data centres. It can do this by working on feasibility studies together with industry on issues like working on data centres to operate at a higher temperature and practical PUE requirements.

Conclusion

Data centres have been recognised as an essential part of Singapore's digital transformation journey. Technologies exist to help the data centre industry become greener. However, it has to be a whole-of-industry effort. The Sustainability Challenge is the first step towards this effort.  It was organised together with Engie, Singapore Management University and sponsored by Facebook. 

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About

SGTech’s Data Centre Committee brings together the members of the ecosystem to take on opportunities and challenges specific to the industry. The members include the data centre operators and service providers, data centre equipment vendors, solution providers and consultants, among others. 

Please contact wanxin@sgtech.org.sg if you’d like to find out more.

Published Sep 20
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