The Role of a Green Data Center for a Sustainable IT Infrastructure

Jenna Bunnell
Published 04/11/2024
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Role of a Green Data Center for a Sustainable IT InfrastructureThe world produces so much data that it now has to be stored and processed in dedicated facilities—and that takes a lot of energy. Data centers face the twin challenges of increased demand for power and the need for sustainable IT infrastructure that doesn’t harm the planet.

To find this balance, data centers are becoming greener. But what role do green data centers play in sustainable IT, and is green computing good for business? Let’s find out.


Why do we need sustainable IT infrastructure?

On top of the massive amount of data generated every day, the past few years have seen a steep rise in the global number of internet users. This means more web traffic and devices being used and an increased demand for power.

It’s expected that the global electricity consumption of data centers could exceed 1,000 TWh in 2026 (that’s roughly the entire electricity consumption of Japan). Additionally, data centers and transmission networks are now responsible for 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

So, the challenge is to create sufficient computational power for the world’s growing needs without causing any further harm to the environment. It’s therefore vital that IT infrastructures—including data centers—are as sustainable as possible.


What is a green data center?

A data center is a facility for storing and managing data on behalf of organizations. A green data center does the same thing but in a more sustainable way. All its systems (computer, electrical, mechanical, and lighting) are designed to consume less energy and minimize its environmental impact.

The characteristics of a green data center include low-emission construction materials and furnishings, minimized building footprints, alternative energy sources, such as heat pumps or photovoltaic technology, and responsible practices such as e-waste recycling.


How does a green data center work?

In any data center, the majority of energy is used for cooling and lighting, storing data, running computational workloads, network hardware, and power conversion (used for transformers and power distribution units).

Green data centers contain several sustainable technologies and systems that reduce energy usage. These include:

  • Low-power servers for maximum efficiency.
  • Cold and hot aisle containment. Servers are situated so they receive either hot air or cold air according to need.
  • Free air cooling systems. Data centers are deliberately located in cooler climates and draw in outdoor air for cooling.
  • Evaporative cooling. This reduces heat through water evaporation, using evaporation pads and high-pressure spray systems.
  • Ultrasonic humidification. Ultrasound produces the moisture required for running certain devices.
  • Heat recovery and reuse. Any waste heat generated by the data center is reused to heat other buildings, often in collaboration with a local energy provider.
  • Backup power and generators. Hydrogen and lithium batteries instead of diesel and advanced software that manages surplus energy automatically.
  • Semiconductor technologies. Silicon and wide-bandgap semiconductors enable more power with less energy use.
  • Server virtualization. Multiple “virtual machines” run as if they were physically separated to enable the operation of multiple systems and apps. This means you don’t need so many physical servers, which saves on space and equipment and reduces energy consumption.
  • Sustainable construction. This includes the use of recycled materials and electronic waste, turning existing buildings into data centers, and using prefabricated modular construction.


What role do green data centers play in sustainable IT?

Sustainable IT infrastructure refers to technology resources and practices that minimize negative impacts on the environment and society. This includes sustainable sourcing, responsible e-waste management, and human rights protections.

Energy efficiency is a major theme, but sustainable IT is also about enabling greater operational efficiency for businesses. Because every aspect of green data centers is designed with sustainability in mind, they’re a key component of this approach.

For instance, better deployment and configuration of tools and devices help to reduce the overall environmental footprint of IT systems. A green data center might replace hard disks with higher-performance solid-state drives or use the Apache Parquet data file format for efficient data compression and decompression.

Green data centers are sustainable on an individual basis, but they also fit into the wider concept of sustainable IT for the world. For example, they provide other businesses with the option of storing their data in a greener way or using data center colocation instead of in-house facilities.

For those looking to reduce their environmental impact even further, one option is to explore energy-efficient web hosting and renewable energy options for their online activities. Additionally, individuals may consider using residential proxies to browse the web anonymously or access location-restricted content, although it’s important to evaluate their environmental implications separately.

They play a part in the push for the Net Zero Scenario (the global energy sector’s aim of achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050) too. Energy-efficient initiatives like green data centers are already mitigating the increased demand for power and data network services.


Are green data centers good for business?

Apart from the benefits to the environment, green data centers bring a raft of other advantages.


Reduced costs

Energy is the main expense for a data center, so reducing energy costs leads to significant savings. Green practices translate to lower electricity consumption, decreased water usage, and reduced waste output. You’ll be reusing tech and recycling e-waste where possible, too, which also reduces costs.

Another cost-saving green principle is data center colocation, in which multiple businesses rent space in a single data storage facility instead of each running their own. Meanwhile, there are tax incentives and monetary support available for environmentally responsible businesses like efficient data centers.


Improved reliability

By using renewable energy sources, you’re much more likely to experience a reliable power supply—even in the face of disruptions caused by factors like climate change. Sustainable data centers are more viable in the long term, which is good news for center operators and the businesses who use them to store data.

Improved reliability also feeds into your IT risk management strategy. And, since sustainable data storage is about ethics as well as energy, it helps you ensure regulatory compliance.


Consumer and employee confidence

Sustainable practices and principles are a big part of corporate responsibility, and consumers are increasingly drawn to organizations that share these values. Operating or using green data storage presents a positive brand image, attracting more customers and increased revenue.

As well as being proud to work for a sustainable company, employees of green data centers enjoy a healthy and supportive work environment. This improves morale, retention, and recruitment.


Enhanced community relations

Green facilities can help you create and maintain good relationships with local communities too. Because data centers are integrated with the electricity grid, you can channel any surplus energy you generate from renewable sources back to it (or store it for future use). This contributes to the needs of nearby communities and helps stabilize the grid itself.


Best practices for green data centers

Setting up a green data center is a positive step in itself, but there are certain things you can do to maximize the benefits.


Pick the right location

If you’re seeking a site for a new green data center, it’s best to choose locations with plenty of renewable energy resources. Ideally, they’ll be close to fiber networks or a renewable energy plant and in an area with a temperate climate.

Additionally, considering cybersecurity measures, ensure the location supports reliable internet connectivity for remote management and security protocols, potentially integrating with a VPN app for secure access.

You might also use “twin” green data centers, where the two facilities are located in different areas and powered by different renewable sources. They thus balance each other’s needs through demand management.


Reuse and recycle

Green data centers encourage the refurbishment and reuse of older IT devices where possible. However, not everything can be repaired. Older legacy equipment is often less energy efficient and doesn’t integrate with the latest technology. For example, you’d need an up-to-date comms system to take advantage of AI features like visual voicemail.

If you do need to replace parts and devices, make sure you keep anything that’s useful and dispose of the rest responsibly.


Maximize efficiency

You can use data to identify and predict peak times for user traffic through your center. This way, you can deliver extra power only when it’s needed and reduce power consumption and cooling costs the rest of the time.

Think about how you’ll scale your green strategies as demand grows. Modular data centers are more flexible, and it helps if your other systems are scalable too—such as using a cloud-based call center (CCaaS) instead of basing it on the premises.


Measure performance

There are specific performance metrics for green data centers. The first is “power usage effectiveness” (PUE), which is the ratio of power provided to a center divided by the power your center equipment uses. A ratio of one, or as close as possible, indicates efficient usage.

Carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) is the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions generated by the data center divided by the equipment’s energy consumption. Again, you want the lowest possible value, showing that you’re minimizing your carbon footprint.


Get Certified

It’s also a good idea to show interested parties that your premises and IT systems are energy-efficient and eco-friendly, which you can do with official certification. One such accreditation is the Energy Star designation, developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

Another is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), created by the US Green Building Council. This shows that a building has low energy consumption and is environmentally friendly and is judged on a strict set of criteria.


Final thoughts

Green data centers play a crucial role in sustainable IT infrastructure and contribute to the development of a greener culture worldwide. They utilize innovative technology solutions to reduce energy consumption while providing enough power to meet demand.

These centers can be expensive to set up, but the optimized energy efficiency and reliability do pay off long-term. A green workplace is beneficial for employees, too, while the ability to demonstrate sustainable credentials is appealing to consumers and ensures regulatory compliance.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.