27 June 2013 —SPECIAL REPORT:  As data use grows, and we push more to the cloud, the question of how clean that cloud is becomes increasingly important.

For business, whether data is being stored in an efficient way is a significant financial issue. It’s also a corporate social responsibility concern – is company data powered by a clean, green cloud or a thick smog?

Increases in connectivity and digitisation means data is an integral, though usually invisible, part of our lives. Where it becomes tangible, however, is in the data centre.

Data centres are set to become the global hubs of high energy use. They’re responsible for two per cent of the world’s electricity use, with IT equipment causing four per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

These figures, thanks to massive data use increases, are escalating. And the growth is happening at a faster pace than the overall economy.

In Australia, the roll-out of the national broadband network means faster data transfer, and most likely a concomitant increase in data use. According to Cisco, data use in Australia is growing at 36 per cent a year, and shows no signs of abating. We’re using data more, and also in different ways, with the rise of connected smart phones, tablets and other devices pushing up use dramatically.

The Office of Environment and Heritage, which administers NABERS, says Australian data centres are responsible for 1.5 per cent of Australia’s energy consumption. It also says Australian data centres have been much slower than their international counterparts in the US, UK and India in understanding their energy use.

This is part of the reason NABERS released a tool to measure data centre efficiency earlier this year – the first tool in the world to do so.

A recent study released by Digital Realty – part of the group advising the NSW government on NABERS-rated data centres – found that of the 100 Australian data centres surveyed, 39 per cent were not actively measuring their power use, though 90 per cent said they were “extremely” or “very” confident they were complying with regulations.

“These figures suggest a disconnect in some areas of the Australian data centre industry,” said Kris Kumar, senior vice president and regional head, Asia Pacific for Digital Realty.

“Close to 40 per cent of respondents not measuring the power consumption of their data centres and yet 90 per cent of them feeling confident about complying with regulations suggests there is a gap that needs to be closed and an opportunity for the industry to take a more proactive approach to monitoring energy use,” he said

Thirteen per cent of companies did not know their power usage effectiveness – a measure of how efficiently a computer data centre uses its power – and five per cent didn’t even know what the term meant. However, this is a better result than the 2012 study, where 25 per cent of companies did not know their PUE.

For business, effectively managing data centres is crucial due to the significant overheads.

“At an operational level, properly monitoring and managing energy use within a data centre environment can significantly reduce operational expenditure and support an organisation’s corporate social responsibility objectives,” Kumar said. “It’s certainly no secret that energy costs are a significant cost factor for data centre users so a focus on energy efficiency and a clear visibility of usage is critical.

“Energy rating schemes such as NABERS are set to positively impact the data centre industry. With regulations in place, PUE numbers can no longer be ‘estimated’. Companies that seek a NABERS rating must begin to measure their power use. This in itself is a big opportunity for companies to ensure their facilities operate in an energy efficient manner.”

And a recent study by Fujitsu provided worse statistics. It found that almost 80 per cent of survey respondents (CIOs and IT managers) did not carry out calculations for PUE, and 70 per cent didn’t even know their energy costs. Australia also ranked the lowest of countries surveyed regarding green IT effectiveness.

WSP senior consultant Kirsty Bauer says the claim Australia is behind the eight ball in measuring energy in data centres may partially be due to the fact energy use hasn’t been seen as a “crucial matter” in Australia compared with other countries.

But increasing energy prices and tough market conditions are forcing companies to look hard at where savings can be made.

Citibank’s Citi Data Centre in Frankfurt, Germany

What constitutes a data centre?

Chief executive of Green Global Consulting Bob Sharon says the definition of what constitutes a data centre is contested. NABERS uses a definition of a minimum 10kw/h heat load, shared storage separate from servers and cooled by a dedicated system.

Sharon says that he would not consider the minimum as a data centre.

“To me that’s not a data centre; that’s a computer room.”

He says “it would be nice” to have a more standardised approach that took size into account.

One source told The Fifth Estate data centres were growing at one per week in Australia, but Sharon says that’s putting a big spin on it, thanks to the low benchmarks set – though growth levels were still “huge”.

How NABERS Energy for data centres works

NABERS Energy for data centres is a voluntary tool that can be applied to in-house data centres or purpose-built facilities.

There are three rating tool categories:

  • IT equipment, which is the rating for organisation that manage their IT equipment but have no control over support services like airconditioning, lighting and security
  • Infrastructure, which allows data centre owners and managers to determine the facility’s energy efficiency in supplying infrastructure services to equipment housed in the centres, suitable for co-location centres where operators have no control over tenant IT
  • Whole facility, which combines the two former categories for organisation that both manage and occupy their data centre, or where metering doesn’t allow for separate measurement

Bauer says the NABERS Energy for data centre tool is designed to help data centre operators understand energy use in a more normalised manner.

PUE, which is generally the total energy consumption divided by the energy of the IT equipment, can be calculated in a number of ways, she says.

Unlike self-assessed PUE, NABERS for data centres provides a consistent methodology and third-party accreditation to conduct the rating and an independent assessment, providing credibility and transparency, says the OEH.

It uses a calculation of PUE but also includes emission indexes plus a number of other criteria such as storage capacity and processing capacity.

The ideal outcome would be to get a PUE of one, though this is pretty well unfeasible. Bauer provided some broad estimates of how PUE would relate to a NABERS star rating, with a PUE of three getting roughly a one-star rating, while a PUE of 1.2 would be six stars.

How will NABERS for data centres help?

Sharon says you have to look at the record to see how NABERS for data centres will affect the market.

He says due to NABERS buildings ratings, government departments would not rent buildings unless they were at least 4.5 stars.

He said the same would become true of data centres, and that the effect will not just be on the data centres, but on green IT as well.

“We now have a government-sanctioned standard for IT equipment efficiency,” he says. “Government bodies will start saying, ‘What is your NABERS rating?’”

He says while it’s not compulsory, it did give data centre operators “brownie points”. It shows companies are doing something, which is important for those with corporate social responsibility goals.

Financially, it makes even more sense, he says.

“It will show the CIOs how much they are spending,” and that sustainability has tangible financial benefits. It’s not an either/or these days.

Those who act early improving their efficiency are going to see the most benefit, Sharon says.

Bauer agrees.

“Storage space is like digital real estate,” she says. “If you lower the overheads you’re able to be more competitive in the growing market.”

She says NABERS was also trying to align the aims of different stakeholders to provide for better energy efficiency.

“There’s a whole range of disciplines with conflicting aims,” she says, mentioning IT, facilities management and mechanical designers. “What NABERS is trying to do is get them to work together.”

She says energy efficiency has often been put to the back because security of data is typically the principal concern.

Sometimes these aims can be against each other, she says. People need back-up of data, which requires a degree of redundancy in equipment, meaning more power use.

“NABERS is trying to bring energy efficiency forward while still maintaining security,” she says.

NABERS is trailblazing

Bauer says NABERS is the first tool for data centres globally, partly because they can’t agree on a framework elsewhere.

“It’s very new and the whole world is looking to see, ‘Is this going to work?’”

But developments are being made.

“As we speak there is a new ISO standard being developed,” Sharon says, and it’s being driven out of the US and Europe.

“NABERS is the forefunner and other countries are having a look.

“Far more detailed standards are being developed but it’ll take a couple more years.”

Google’s data centre in Hamina, Finland

Location, location, location

Where to locate fit-for-purpose data centres is another huge issue for efficiency and associated sustainability impacts. One method of reducing costs is locating them somewhere really cold, where cooling needed to provide a safe environment for equipment can be provided naturally.

Facebook, for instance, has located its latest data centre on the edge of the arctic circle, using free cooling from the outside air to save on costs and emissions. The data centre is also being powered by locally generated hydroelectricity, which the company says is reliable enough to allow it to remove most of its backup capacity.

“All this adds-up to a pretty impressive power usage efficiency number,” Facebook posted on its website.

“These companies are building their data centres with clean energy in mind, which sends a clear signal to utilities and government officials that renewable energy is not only possible, but also smart business in the 21st century economy,” said Greenpeace’s David Pomerantz.

Another solution is to productively use the waste heat generated by the computer equipment. This would mean a radical rethink of where data centres are best located. Instead of being relegated to the ends of the earth, they could be integrated into cities, where their heat could be put to productive use, for example, space heating of nearby buildings.

Arup associate co-leader Michael Beavan wrote recently on bringing data centres in from the cold and putting them at the heart of smart cities. He said excess heat could not be utilised when data centres were located far away from other buildings, but that they were a good source of continuous, high-grade heat.

“By making data centres, and the sustainable generation to power them, part of the infrastructure of our smart cities, we could easily harness their excess heat and stop it going to waste,” he said.