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Posted by Anna Nicholls on 14-Jan-2022 13:01:27

What would happen if there were no data centres?

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Data centres use energy. That’s a fact. According to March 2021 figures, these power hungry server farms are responsible for 3% of the world’s power consumption. And as the world becomes ever more digitally connected - something which has been fuelled by the Covid 19 pandemic - and we increase our reliance on data centres, this figure is only going to grow. But is 3% a lot? Well the IT industry as a whole can take responsibility for between 2% and 6% of total global greenhouse emissions. These figures i’m quoting do seem small. You could be forgiven for thinking that 2% is negligible. But if I tell you that 2% - 6% of greenhouse gas emissions is on a par with the aviation industry, you’ll agree that data centres could be a problem. Gartner reported that end-user spending on global data centre infrastructure would reach $200 billion in 2021, with data centre infrastructure spending expected to grow year on year through to 2024, so the problem is only going to get bigger. 

So of course, the topic of data centres and sustainability is becoming more and more important and must be discussed seriously. And lots of data centre providers are indeed taking things very seriously. Microsoft, for example has pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050. Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 and has pledged to become carbon free by 2030. And here at Teledata, we're striving to reduce our carbon footprint and to date have invested £1.5 Million into a 2MW smart energy battery storage system which, along with a host of behind-the-meter energy saving measures, has reduced our carbon output by over 500 tonnes per year. In 2022, we will become the first data centre in the UK to deploy a scalable 1.2MW hydrogen-ready fuel cell microgrid to provide clean energy to our facility. So the smaller players, not just the big providers, are doing their bit to protect the planet. 

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But let’s look at this from a different perspective. Let’s take data centres out of the equation entirely. Roll back a few years, a couple of decades, to a world without data centres. Where are all the servers now? Chugging away in offices, under desks, with inefficient cooling and power-hungry old hardware? No cloud, no virtualisation, just thousands upon thousands of servers, in offices across the world, poorly managed and power hungry. Most notably, inefficient. 

How did greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint of IT look then? It’s data that’s difficult to identify, but between 1990 and 2019 there was a general downward trend in greenhouse gas end user emissions from the UK business sector, resulting in an overall decrease of 54%. Did taking servers out of offices and into data centres influence that trend? And is this a better option, with data centres investing millions into sustainability projects and clean energy provision - investments that businesses wouldn’t be making. 

And within that 2% - 6% of greenhouse gas emissions that data centres are responsible for, there is a lot of good being done. Valuable R&D, vaccine development, cancer research, genetic medicines - science and critical engineering that will result in the answers we need to turn the environmental and medical tide. All of this progress would be slower, more laborious and perhaps even non-existent without the technologies that are provided by data centres such as cloud computing, edge computing, super fast connectivity and more. Not forgetting what data centres and associated technologies enabled during the Covid 19 pandemic. As Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell puts it, technology “prevented a complete societal economic meltdown” by enabling the world to work, learn and play from home during the global Covid 19 pandemic. Had this pandemic happened in a world without cloud, without data centres, without social media, online shopping, home schooling and remote working, it would have been a very, very different experience for everybody. 

So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on data centres. They provide uninterrupted availability of a wide range of applications and are the critical infrastructure for everything from telecommunications, social media, banking, news and entertainment, and many more services. They are, in fact, the backbone of today’s economy. And as an industry, data centres are leading the way towards a greener, more responsible and sustainable existence. 

Topics: colocation, cloud hosting, cloud, it industry, power, tech, energy efficiency, connectivity, data centres, carbon neutrality, environment

Anna Nicholls

Written by Anna Nicholls

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