Head (Data Centre) – Information Technology Shared Services, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)
Opinion: How rethinking the normal could improve sustainable data center builds
Published 27 April 2020
“The pandemic makes it increasingly hard to hold on to the idea that the business of business is merely business”. I read this quote by Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson recently and it gave me pause for thought on how to approach an article I promised months ago to write for W.Media
There is no easy way to write about the complex and nuanced relationship between the data center industry and sustainability.
Though, I am not sure what the facts are, I will share a point of view (I might even have endorsed a few white lies), and perhaps this could pique the interest of some readers to fact check and draw their own conclusions.
The data center industry responds to call for action
According to the International Energy Agency, global internet traffic has tripled since 2015 and is expected to further double by 2022, and drive up demand for data centers to process this traffic. The global data center electricity demand in 2018 was estimated to be 198 terawatts per hour, or almost 1% of the global demand for electricity.
And hence, as Gary Cook from Greenpeace puts it, it is important that people building data centers around the world build digital infrastructure in a way that is consistent with tackling climate change aggressively.
In fact, the Internet industry at large has been responsive to calls by Greenpeace.
Facebook committed in 2010 to power its operations with 100% renewable energy. Similarly, Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 and, by 2050, remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975.
In December last year, Chindata became the first data center in China to set a target to power its operations with 100% renewable energy, and has since come top of the renewable energy ranking in Greenpeace East Asia’s report published this year. Chindata and Alibaba are now working together with the local government in Northern China for a cooperation mechanism that would allow Chinese cloud and data center operators to procure renewable energy directly from wind and solar generators.
Many groups have also come forward to advocate green data center practices (such as the likes of the Green Grid and the Infrastructure Masons), including the Open Compute Project Foundation, which seeks to promote a more efficient way of computing, and the EU-funded Boden Type DC One, which is experimenting with new and more efficient ways of compute.
The list goes on.
Sustainability can be good for business
I do not suggest that all entities embark on sustainability efforts out of the kindness of their hearts or a conviction about the need to do the right thing. Shrewd companies and their shareholders can and do benefit fiscally from these efforts.
Jeffrey Jaensubhakij, Group Chief Investment Officer (GCIO) of GIC, told the World Federation of Exchanges general assembly in October 2019 that ‘the markets are rewarding companies with sustainable business practices’.
Singapore imposed a carbon tax in 2019 at a rate of $5 for every tonne of greenhouse gas emissions, putting additional pressure on data centers to be sustainable and avoid additional costs.
With sustainability increasingly tied with corporate governance under corporate ESG functions, sustainability is now seen as another means of creating shareholder value – think of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
We are not out of the woods yet
The problem of climate change is so big that it cannot be effectively dealt with by any one party.
But just how do you begin to describe this problem? According to (some) scientists, burning of fossil fuels leads to billions of tons of CO2 emissions yearly, and in turn rising global temperatures.
Global warming would weaken the thermohaline circulation leading to more droughts, changed weather patterns, reduced global crop production, rising sea levels making coastal areas uninhabitable and a medium ice age. In other words, apocalypse.
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. More specifically, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050
However, observers might be discomforted by the lackadaisical commitment shown by some nation states in the COP25 Climate Change Conference, and in their targets declared in the Nationally Determined Contribution submitted every five years under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Suffice to say, not all nations and scientists are persuaded of the rationale and urgency to curb carbon emissions.
There is also a more immediate effect that more of us can make sense of. Burning of fossil fuels contributes to fine particulate population, and breathing in microscopic pollutants inflames and damages the lining of the lungs over time, which can make the human body more susceptible to respiratory infections and various other medical conditions.
So despite the herculean efforts of the data center industry where the burden may be not evenly shared by all industry members, I am not persuaded we should be happy with the progress we, the human race, are making.
Putting the cart before the horse by rethinking the normal
I think we should fundamentally rethink how we frame the subject of sustainability, being cognizant of the complex and evolving needs of the different stakeholders.
A good sustainability strategy is one that mobilizes industry, government and consumer. If you take out of one of the tripod legs, it’s just not going to work very well. We stand to gain collectively and individually from a more coordinated and collective response.
Has the data center industry done enough? Is there more it should do? I leave that to you to decide. Because data centers are simply businesses, and businesses exist to continually make a profit, just as workers work to continually put food on the table. Which means they will give what consumers are willing to pay for and policy makers allow them to, on the premise they can make enough to stay afloat
Modern consumers are increasingly addicted to the convenience and reliability of the internet, and as the engine of the Internet, data centers power the way we live, work and play. It is the consumer behavior and their spending dollar that determines what is produced to feed that spending.
If we accept that some of these services (that we are addicted to) can be slower and even less reliable, would that change how we design and operate data centers? – Some might recall the triangle being referenced in the Green Grid white paper on the performance indicator.
Fast and reliable has been the normal, and we all want to return to normal. But what if normal is what got us into this mess in the first place?
Rebecca Henderson suggests three reasons why we are slow to change: Denial (“It’s not going to happen”), Greed (“My current needs are infinitely above other peoples’ needs, including my future needs”), and Overload and Incompetence (“I am too overwhelmed to act otherwise”).
Because to respond effectively would require us to reinvent the way we live, work and play. It means we have to overcome the self-denial, the greed and the incompetence that is embedded in the way we live, work, play and govern. It might even mean we need to disrupt or reinvent the way industry, governments and consumers talk to each other.
I cannot imagine what it means. What I can imagine is spending two weeks in isolation where I am forced by law to change my habits and stay indoors.
And to add salt to the wound, my Internet connection failed on me this week for nine hours. It seemed like the end of the world for me, but the morning arose again the next day.
It is still business as usual for me, even after the Internet took a nine hour break. And perhaps we might think differently of what business as usual means at the end of this pandemic.