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While sustainability is a hot topic, it doesn't mean anything if you can't make it real.  

Sustainability is a top priority for most organizations. In a 2022 Gartner study,  87% of business leader respondents planned to increase spending on sustainability, citing pressures by customers (80%), investors (60%), and regulators (55%). The respondents said they believed this increased investment would provide value to their organizations (83%), help them optimize and reduce costs (80%), and protect their organizations from disruption (86%).  

Sustainability pledges are everywhere, with CEOs at the highest levels promising that their companies will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by a certain date. For example, Citi CEO Jane Fraser announced on her first day on the job that the company would achieve carbon neutrality of the data center by 2030, and as an overall financial institution by 2050.  

These bold visions encompass some amazingly complex goals. To run a large enterprise without contributing to global warming or the carbon footprint of the world is extremely difficult. In a 2022 research study, over half of corporate executives share that their organizations have not made significant strides on their sustainability goals for reasons including lack of strategic alignment, skill sets, and KPIs.

For organizations that can overcome these challenges, the rewards are great. Recent examples of sustainability "wins" convincingly prove that sustainability can help organizations run better. When the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently built a new research facility, they designed an energy-efficient data center that reduced the overall power load by more than 60% and significantly reduced the power utilization effectiveness (PUE) rating compared to the legacy data center it replaced. Not only did this increased efficiency deliver significant cost savings from lower energy usage, but it also drove numerous business outcomes, including significantly greater uptime, decreased upfront capital costs, and greatly improved service.        

So where do you begin turning your sustainability vision into reality? 

Measure and inspect, then plan and act

The journey toward sustainability begins by collecting key metrics of the data center to understand where resources are being expended and addressing those expenditures to optimize utilization to minimize impact. 

Through measurement and inspection, you can understand the workflows and workloads in your data center, then map those to sustainable infrastructure. In short, you must measure so you can act. 

Of course, that is easier said than done.  

For many organizations, deeply understanding the data center assets is one of their biggest challenges. To optimize you must know where you are; understand what's in your data center, what it is doing, what applications are running, and what resources those applications are using. Many enterprises are underutilizing the resources they have in their data centers, computers, storage arrays, and network switches that spend a lot of their time idling and not doing useful work.  

Watts are a measure of work, digital work is what data centers do.  Every input to the data center needs to be audited back to the point that you know everything you put into your data center from a wattage perspective is doing something useful for your organization. Establishing instrumentation and measurements is key to that. Inputs into the data center must have a measurable, positive impact on the work of the organization. 

A key aspect of this is to evaluate the systems planned or present in the data center through an efficiency lens. WWT does this work in our labs, testing the systems that our partners, like HPE, provide us to create sustainable solutions for our joint customers. Part of the process of that is to perform detailed measurements of those systems and analysis of those measurements. 

A thorough examination of equipment from a sustainability point of view means asking more than just how many watts does this device consume.  

To make well-informed decisions about what equipment should go into your data center, we ask questions including: 

  • What is the airflow throughout the data center?
  • What's the airflow coming in and out of these systems, and what's the temperature difference in that airflow, under various loads?
  • What is the audio and sound pressure?

Measuring your carbon footprint can yield some unique insights. For example, it can highlight underutilized equipment and older equipment that is expensive to operate because it requires so much electricity yet underperforms next generation estates.  

Taking action on those insights—removing what may be a substantial number of devices that are underutilized, under consumed, and consuming disproportionate amounts of electricity, space footprint and maintenance costs in the data center—is good for the bottom line. 

New offerings are making it easier to measure and manage your carbon footprint. HPE—which has its own corporate vision to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—recently announced its new sustainability dashboard on the HPE Greenlake platform. The dashboard leverages advanced analytics from the HPE portfolio across compute, storage and networking to help you measure, manage and reduce your organization's energy consumption and carbon footprint. It is accompanied by a portfolio of new sustainability offerings, including technology, services, financing, and asset upcycling. 

Densify workloads

Data Center workloads use watts; there's nothing you can do to change that fact. So, the question becomes, how do you use that electricity as efficiency as possible. The latest generations of systems are much more capable than the systems they are set to replace. There is an opportunity to densify workloads allowing a single system to replace a few previous generation systems. You may want to consider densifying workloads to maximize the unit of useful work per watt. 

There is an optimization that can be done between the devices in the data center, and the amount of work that they're doing that provides the organization with the best, most efficient carbon footprint.  

That doesn't mean a particular system will use less electricity; it doesn't. When you load up a system, it uses more electricity, and the latest generations of system draw more power than previous ones. Densification helps you avoid a number of issues. The first is the cost of electricity for underutilized equipment. The second is avoiding indirect emissions that are a consequence of your activities that occur from sources you don't own or control (scope two and scope three emissions). Densifying workloads means fewer assets and that means those assets that would have been purchased and consumed in the  DC aren't needed and therefore aren't created. Additionally, it frees up space in the data center.

Consider liquid cooling instead of air cooling

It's much more efficient to use liquid cooling for workloads and densification. We have to be careful about the unintended consequences associated with that because in order to retrofit a data center, you might increase your carbon footprint during the retrofit, which is problematic. We have to put the right asset in at the right time, and there's an argument about what kind of liquid cooling should win. But ambient air technology in the data center, from a sustainability as well as from a performance standpoint, will no longer be sufficient, at least based on current technology.

Next-generation computation requires infrastructure that consumes much larger energy resources and that requires that we look at ways of cooling that infra or densifying that infra or both. That means a massive amount of data center retrofitting will be required to figure out new ways of doing things that could increase our carbon footprint, which is the opposite of what we want to do. When running next generation processes, there is simply no choice. 

Push for industry standards

Standards are an important way to compare apples to apples, to gain a deeper understanding and to present an accurate depiction of what is going on, whether it is standardized testing, reporting or regulatory measurements. When it comes to sustainability, a common language for reporting is necessary to avoid "greenwashing," or making a company seem to be greener than it actually is and to provide a fairer representation of an organization's impact and contributions to the world, according to Natalia Scherbakoff of the Forbes Technology Council in Forbes.  

Clearly, the industry needs common ways of measuring and thinking about sustainability. Several groups have offered or are in the process of creating standards, from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), the International IR Framework, Disclosure Insight Action, and others. In fact, the problem right now is that there are too many groups who are looking at this without enough agreement. 

The U.S. SEC and the European Commission continue to push for more mandatory reporting. California recently announced that to do business in the state, you must report your sustainability numbers and your carbon footprint. As California's economy is bigger than many countries, this will drive major change in North America.

As the requirement for sustainability reporting expands, the need for manageable industry standard reporting continues to grow. As an IT leader, you can be a voice for standardized reporting within your organization and industry, as well as the IT industry. 

Remember what's at stake

We have to balance the real world necessity and the promise of next gen technology with the very real impact that it has on the environment. Even before the advent of generative AI, data centers consumed about 2% of the electricity on earth, which is significant, and the power requirements for those data centers was increasing about 25% per year.  

From a data center consumption point of view, generative AI is going to consume significant amounts of electricity, floor space, cooling and water—and everything that goes with that. We want the promise of these technologies but we have to implement them in a responsible, sustainable way. 

Transforming our consumption modality in to a more sustainable approach is difficult. However, it is clear that we are at a turning point in our environment. Our obligation is to figure out new ways of consuming these resources in a sustainable way. We, as stewards of this place we call home, must protect our environment for generations to come. 

About the Authors

Donald Molaro, Chief Technical Advisor—Sustainability, WWT 

Donald Molaro - Profile - WWT 

Dan Maslowski, Head of Infrastructure, Operations and Security—GreenLake Cloud Platform, HPE 

Dan Maslowski | LinkedIn 

Learn more about Sustainable Technology and HPE Connect with a WWT Expert