Data Centers and Carbon: Can Data Centers Be More Sustainable

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As the world economy moves to decarbonize, how does an industry built on turning energy into data, faced with an insatiable demand for its output, seek to provide resilience against climate change?

For there to be a tomorrow, today’s reality demands new priorities and thinking, whatever your data center type. These include decisions about facility hosted supercomputers to track climate change or buying of power and space in a commercial colo environment. Also important are issues about sustainability, energy efficiency and carbon emissions.

Let’s consider two perspectives: How are data centers being used to monitor climate change? And how can they be managed in the context of sustainability?

Supercomputers in Super Data Centers

When it comes to climate modelling, data centers are important tools in the tracking of carbon emissions in the battle against climate change. Over the last two decades, supercomputers in large data centers all around the world have been crunching vast oceanographic, atmospheric, environmental, geospatial and weather data sets. While normally running in the background, a recent UK announcement for a planned £1.2bn weather supercomputer made headlines.

The UK’s weather forecasting organization, The Met Office, will invest £1.2bn in a supercomputer to provide more accurate forecasts and climate modelling over the next ten years. It was widely reported in the UK, and the announcement came as the country was being hit by its second big storm in the span of one week. This welcome news was also notable for something else: the news about a giant supercomputing project, directly addressing where the energy to power it might be sourced, its potential carbon impact, and possible sustainability options.


The Met Office put forward the radical idea that aspects of its supercomputer could be hosted outside the UK in places with access to low carbon geothermal or hydro-power. This is a first, as the issue of sustainability relating to IT is pushing a publicly owned national weather service to think outside the box. The UK now has a ten-year plan. Across the world, we can be certain of new projects being planned for more Petaflops and Exaflops of supercomputing processing power to crunch climate data.

Will the people behind these projects ask how the computers and data centers will be made sustainable? The answer is a definite yes. There is little choice but to think radically.

Radical Thinking for Traditional Data Centers

This raises questions about how the broader data center industry can become sustainable and where radical thinking can take us? Radical does not mean tearing everything down and starting again, in Iceland for geothermal, or Norway for hydro-power. This is impractical and would do more environmental harm than good.

It is also important to note that the way data centers have evolved, in the last decade, proves that the sector has been thinking and delivering in addressing efficiency on the path to sustainability. For example, since 2008, The EU Code of Conduct on Data Centers has provided guidance on best practices around efficiency. It is “a voluntary initiative managed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, to inform and encourage data center operators and owners to reduce energy consumption in a cost-effective manner without decreasing mission critical data center function.” The EU DC CoC Energy Efficiency Guide 2018 provided further guidelines.

Many large data center operators have committed to net carbon neutral operation of facilities through a commitment to clean energy, use of renewables and investments in offsetting.

Traditional Computers in Super-Efficient Data Centers

If the question is: Should all existing and future data centers strive to be more efficient? Serverfarm’s answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

The industry should work continuously to create data centers that are as energy efficient as possible. Data centers striving for net carbon neutral operations also have the commercial imperatives of reducing prices for customers and energy and carbon costs for themselves. This includes influencing how tenants/users operate IT through insight and measurement to reduce energy consumption and cut carbon emissions.

As with all properties, data center infrastructure projects should be planned for their entire lifecycle, from sourcing raw materials and products to design and operational efficiency. Can better use be made of existing facilities? Again, Serverfarm believes the answer is yes. Up-cycling and re-use should be part of everyone’s data center strategy in order to future proof against the rising monetary impact cost of carbon.

Serverfarm doesn’t build supercomputers. But it does operate radically and works constantly to provide facilities where power provision is maximized, (even enough to power a supercomputer) and additional capacity is accessed, energy use monitored and carbon impact minimized.