As one of tech’s fastest growing regions, Southeast Asia’s data center market is becoming increasingly crucial to our digital societies, but they are also pumping out carbon emissions at a previously unimaginable scale, putting sustainability in question.
“IT makes up approximately 5% of electrical energy consumption, and is projected to grow exponentially, up to 8.5% by 2035,” said Paul Tyrer, the Vice President for Cloud and Service Provider in APAC at Schneider Electric, during a keynote at a recent W.Media event.
“While data centers only make a relatively small share of that today at around 2%, we believe that is going to increase significantly as we continue the trend with more off-premise compute happening in colocation, cloud computing, and other trends that are driving the proliferation of large data centers,” added Mr. Tyrer.
Improving data center sustainability is probably one of the only answers to slowing the damaging effects brought about by powering the facilities.
And there’s an appetite for it. According to Schneider Electric’s recent research with 451 Research, 57% of global colocation providers surveyed believe efficiency and sustainability will be highly important competitive differentiators in three years, driven by customer requirements, long-term operational resiliency and public opinion.
So how should the data center industry practise ethical, sustainable operations whilst balancing consumers’ data demands?
A panel of professionals came together at W.Media’s Sustainable Data Centers digital event to explore how data center players in Southeast Asia adopt eco-friendly tech practices.
“Sustainability is a practice that does not conflict building with speed and scale. In fact, they actually go together. Unless we all come together with industry specialists in the sector, we will be able to realise this vision faster and more effectively,” said Manish Shangari, Executive Director of AECOM.
Adoption speed and supply chains now the main concerns in keeping up with sustainability commitments
Panelists at the event unanimously agreed with the sentiment, citing the sustainability goals set by the UN, including responsible consumption and production of energy. But Omer Wilson, Vice President of APAC Marketing at Digital Realty, pointed out that the main issue that concerns businesses in the region is the speed in which they are able to adopt sustainability practices.
“Southeast Asia is the fastest growing in terms of demand, and with the emerging markets now, this is going to continue. The likes of Indonesia are really coming up the ranks, especially around data usage and the requirements for data centers, which, if you think about it, is quite an underserved market,” said Mr. Wilson.
“That can be a little bit scary in terms of how much build is going to be needed to meet up with the demand,” he added.
So what have businesses in the region been doing to mediate this?
“We are transferring a lot of expertise and best practices from other regions into Asia. In North America, we have huge renewable energy contracts. We also build environmentally-friendly designs and styles, and these have been coming in for a while now,” explained Mr. Wilson.
Valerie Choy, Regional Sales Manager of Schneider Electric’s Energy and Sustainability Services Unit, said that many of their partners are either actively working towards carbon neutrality, or have already met said goal. The focus has shifted to the supply chain.
“We have been doing this to the extent of making demands to suppliers to demonstrate their sustainability commitments and a plan to meet them, or else face losing their business altogether,” she said.
Reconciling development and sustainability goals
With varying levels of economic maturity, Asia is a complex market for data centers to navigate, but Mr. Shangari thinks that it is possible and even easier for businesses to scale their cloud and data center operations fast whilst meeting sustainability demands, citing mega cities in Asia as examples.
Financial incentive also serves as a strong push for the data center industry to practice sustainability.
“Sustainability is a financial decision. It is in our financial benefit to make sure that buildings run as efficiently as possible from an energy perspective,” adds Mr. Wilson.
But are there any markets that are particularly challenging to break into when it comes to convincing clients to go green?
“If you are in the Philippines, you need to comply with the Construction Code 2015. If you are in the likes of Indonesia, you have a different set of compliance codes to be concerned about,” said Joshua Au of Infrastructure Masons.
“Some mutual friends shared that in India, you need to get at least 40 permits to build a data center,” he added.
From bold ambition to bold action
But the obstacles do not mean that it is impossible to drive sustainability in the industry.
“In our industry, we specialise in doing impossible things. Compliance is a challenge, but the industry needs to come together to have a conversation with the respective policymakers,” stresses Mr. Au.
He advocates for an honest and synergetic approach not just between the industry and consumers, but also with researchers and professionals in academia. In that way, every sector is able to support and complement each other.
So in the event that data center operators do join forces to push for a more sustainability in the industry, what should come first?
Mr. Wilson views a top-down approach that bears the young audience’s demands in mind as the best way to realise corporate sustainability targets.
“When the customer drives the cloud or social media, they drive us, the colocation providers. We then innovate and provide more solutions. We all have to support each other,” said Mr. Wilson.
For Mr. Shangari, it is about prioritising one of three objectives: use of extra renewable energy, having a lesser carbon emission, or having cleaner emission systems. Regardless of which objectives that businesses choose to focus on, if there is a KPI in place on top of the sustainability commitment, the effort would go in the right direction.
“It’s an all hands on deck situation to quickly absorb the experience of others who already have those plans in place, and demonstrate try-and-tested strategies to put forward those plans and implement actions to get there.” added Ms. Choy.