Sustainability and the technology landscape
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the conversation around sustainability significantly step up in the public sphere. It is now expected to be part of a business’s strategy, with customers wanting to see how businesses are actively addressing their impact on the environment across all elements of an organization.
The calls for responsible digitalization should not be ignored, and the onus is being placed on operators to improve sustainable practices in their data centers. However, aligning digitalization and sustainability can be challenging. It is complex, requires significant thought and investment, and takes time.
Almost all businesses across the globe use data center services in one form or another, and significant energy is required just to keep them cool. They are central to many core tech businesses, and it is predicted that an increasingly large number of them are needed to satisfy the growing demand for computing power. Unsurprisingly, this demand has been greater since the pandemic due to businesses being forced to work from home. However, alongside this, the huge growth and demand for online streaming services; 5G technology; IoT innovations and increasing automation; cloud infrastructure and cryptocurrencies are all creating a greater need for computer and storage capacity than ever before.
Efficient data centers
So, what can tech businesses do to manage increasing demand whilst also implementing a green strategy that is achievable for the business?
The answer isn’t straightforward. Management teams will always need to have the bottom line in mind, but a cost cannot be put on sustainable practices. Therefore, it’s vital to ensure the right team, knowledge and skill set is brought together to implement change effectively and ensure new tech and processes won’t dramatically impact current systems or architectures already in place.
At the start of a data center sustainability journey, optimization is key. There are two key areas that need to be focused on first: concentrating on cooling systems and technology and, secondly, data center infrastructure management (DCIM) and consolidation. Improving existing data centers through better server utilization and more energy-efficient cooling techniques is not only better for the environment, but increased efficiency and reduced costs are beneficial to the data center operations as well.
Cooling systems is one of the most natural places businesses begin – over 40%  of the energy required in the running of a data center can be attributed to keeping it cool, so a significant adjustment needs to be made to make a data center more sustainable.
In future, it is likely next generation data centers will use innovative air conditioning concepts or high-performance cooling technology to dramatically reduce this figure. However, in the meantime, liquid cooling can be an inexpensive and efficient way to cool systems, helping to reduce the need for energy-consuming fans, while also making better use of the space available.
The source of energy and its supply chain must also be considered. Since 2007, IONOS has only been using electricity from renewable sources in its data centers; where possible directly from the energy supplier. Inside the data centers themselves, wherever possible, ultra-low-loss power units or special cooling systems have also been implemented to help address unnecessary energy usage.
Cooling server and IT infrastructure means that waste heat is being produced which warms the surrounding areas. This has led cities such as Singapore to limit the setup of new data centers. A way to ecologically counter this side-effect is to use the waste heat for heating houses or office buildings. This should be considered when looking for new data center sites.
Data center infrastructure management (DCIM) and consolidation
With DCIM, sustainability improvements focus on process enhancements and investment in efficient technologies to help managers achieve maximum energy efficiency and prevent equipment problems that lead to downtime.
Data centers do not remain static which adds complexity to the process. Racks move, workloads increase, and new technology and hardware is added or updated, meaning this process must be constantly assessed to optimize server utilization and reduce energy use. However, the more accurately and flexibly systems can respond, the better a data center can be operated.
Server utilization is an essential part of this puzzle and cloud technology has already had a substantial effect in improving this. When dedicated servers became popular, many users only used a fraction of the space available, but that data center would still consume electricity all the time. In the cloud, users now share capacities, allowing for better utilization.
While enhancing these processes can take time to implement, and costs will need to be factored into wider business planning, they can improve energy efficiency making the choices more environmentally friendly and help save budget in the long-term.
Taking one step at a time on your sustainability journey
There is a wide range of challenges to be addressed on the path toward climate-neutral data centers and there is no one size fits all approach. What will be achievable for one business will not be the right approach for another, but we all need to unite in the common goal of a more sustainable future.
Businesses will have to consider several elements before implementing changes on this journey, and it is important to look at the bigger picture and plan effectively before diving straight into any immediate changes. Considering whether there is budget available to invest in new greener technology and how changes to the data center infrastructure will impact other important factors such as security is key.
Additionally, if implementing bigger technologies seems daunting now, then consider smaller ways a business can make an impact and take that important first step to being a more sustainable tech business. One example would be making sure that old hardware is recycled in an environmentally friendly way.
A ‘sustainability roadmap’ can be one effective way to make sure the businesses journey to a greener future is as effective as possible. This not only makes sure a business has considered all elements of the process and steps that can be taken, no matter how big or small, but effectively manages challenges along the way and future proofs the business against any issues. It also provides senior management, external partners, and customers with a clear view of the ambitions of the business.
The journey to sustainability is not something that will happen overnight but considering the elements that can be improved and putting a well thought through plan of action in place is the first step towards a greener digital future.
Marko Hilbert is the Head of TechOps Data Centers at IONOS and has over 20 years experience working in IT operations and data center management.
 2017, X. Zhang, T. Lindberg, N. Xiong, V. Vyatkin, A. Mousavi, Cooling Energy Consumption Investigation of Data Center IT Room with Vertical Placed Server