Why We Can’t Just Build Our Way To True Data Center Sustainability

LON1 Case Study

SDC Award
Hosting/Colocation of the Year 2019

SDC Award
Digital Transformation Project of the Year 2019

DCD Award
Data Center Modernization Project of the Year 2019

Back in the times before the era of sustainability driven decision making, the sweating of IT assets was seen as a badge of dishonor. It could spook investors and concerned customers might ask why you were worried about costs.

Today, when a large cloud player says it is going to extend life of its servers by one year, the firm is lauded and we’re treated to a deluge of press coverage of calculations of how much carbon it will save.

This is a change for good. At Serverfarm we don’t yearn for the mythical good old days when greed and consumption were seen as noble aspirations.

For us the idea of using up fewer resources by extending the life of data center assets is in our DNA. It has always made sustainability and business sense.

As a company that creates value from digital infrastructure our model is one of renovation and reuse of existing resources wherever possible and sustainable investment in new infrastructure where needed.

"London is home to 839MW of data power says JLL and 75MW of new supply of will be available in 2022."

What kind of sustainability?

The exact definition of what sustainability really means for the data center remains unclear.

While we work on that definition it is obvious that as businesses, and as a sector we must not become seen as profligate and happy to squander resources.

At a recent JLL event on ‘What’s in store for the data center industry in 2022’ sustainability, supply chain and skills were discussed.

First up was data center demand in context of sustainability.

Across Europe in the FLAP+D markets there are around 2.2GW of commercial data centers. New supply in 2022 is forecast by JLL at 374MW. London is home to 839MW of data power says JLL and 75MW of new supply of will be available in 2022. Demand is great for business. But we must proceed with caution. The public profile of the industry is growing as people, and authorities rightly ask what data center operators are doing to become sustainable in order to tackle climate change.

Which begs the question whether growing demand for data centers is only to be met through a building boom? If so, where will the land and sustainable energy be found? What will be the embodied carbon cost of all the steel and concrete that goes into these new buildings?

New buildings will be necessary but in London, Europe’s largest market, inside the M25 motorway there is calculated to be more than 200MW of existing data center capacity sitting inside enterprise single tenant facilities that is going unused.

That means at least some of the demand can be met through sustainable development of existing assets by modernizing infrastructure and extending the life of buildings whose carbon cost has already been paid.

When it comes to reuse the model is proven. In London we acquired an 8MW data center which was being underutilized, turned the occupant from being an owner operator of a depreciating asset into a customer and extended and expanded the facility’s capacity through an award-winning infrastructure modernization program. This is not an ordinary sale and leaseback tale.

Of course, it is complex. Not all stranded capacity is suitable for reuse. Some unused enterprise capacity may be situated in locations where, for a variety of reasons, it may not be viable to tap into the stranded power and space.

Yet there are plenty of underused enterprise data centers that can be re-used to suit. In this pre-existing part of the market stranded capacity is usually in locations that have high connectivity – often in city centers or close to financial districts. Extending the use of this capacity is good for the service provider, good for the existing enterprise and for the wider market.

Reuse to suit means that from a sustainability perspective not having to construct a new building and thereby creating another tranche of embodied carbon is a viable option. Reuse aligns with the ESG goals of enterprises and will even help avoid the supply chain constraints that much of industry is currently under. And why not serve the customer where they are rather than simply push them into a new location?

"The big risk is that if we don’t regulate ourselves properly then someone else will."

The long view

The data center industry is relatively young compared to most modern businesses such as telecoms or construction, yet each faces the challenges of functioning within the emerging sustainability standards.

However, there is a myopic view that the center of gravity for all data center infrastructure is the operators. This is not true. Sustainability must be viewed in the context of the customer issue on both sides of the demand and supply equation and the people who are ultimately the end users of IT.

A definition of sustainability should not be based on the assumption that only new infrastructure, and buildings have to be constructed and developed to fulfil a need.

As an industry there is a tendency to become very focused on granular details. But if we can defragment ourselves there is an opportunity to think through what the appropriate sustainability metrics for the industry are. 

As an industry that is relatively young and growing very quickly there is a responsibility to really think through very carefully what self-regulation looks like. The industry should not fear regulation. However, it must be aware that a potential problem is that outside regulators might not understand the industry as well as we do. The big risk is that if we don’t regulate ourselves properly then someone else will.

It is time for the finance, real estate, and data center operator community to look up, to focus on the big picture and take the long and wide view of sustainability.

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