Decarbonising data centers is a topic we have been working on for many years. A quick search found several articles I wrote about data center decarbonization efforts in 2011, over a decade ago. However, the discussion on this topic is usually very simple and focuses on how much electricity a company or data center gets from renewable energy sources. I recently sat down with some data center decarbonization experts from Hitachi’s Environmental Business Division to find out more, and it turns out they make the topic a lot more fun and interesting than I ever expected!
Before we get into decarbonizing the data center, let’s start with a little background.
I had this interview with Jody Heyroth, Chief Operating Officer at Hitachi Environmental Business Division, and Justin Bean, who works on Innovation Solutions and Strategy, Sustainability and ESG at Hitachi Environmental Business Division. Jody noted that Hitachi, despite being in business for approximately 112 years, is constantly focused on the future and innovation. “We are a business based on innovation,” he emphasized. “Our mission is to contribute to society through the development of cutting-edge, original technology and products.” Hitachi manufactures a wide range of products: automotive equipment, bullet train technology, computer storage equipment, medical technology, power grid technology and more. It is also deeply involved in the software side of these industries.
Challenges and general solutions in data center decarbonisation
The focus on innovation and continuous improvement is highlighted in how Jody and Justin talk about decarbonizing data centers. For starters, here’s a good overview of the main challenges and general solutions from Jody’s perspective:
“The challenge for data center operators today is figuring out how to balance this sustainable growth. How do they get more of that existing equipment, right — the footprint of that equipment, the power supply for that equipment? But also to ensure that when building new data centers, they are built with this whole approach to sustainability. You know, so data centers can be more sustainable? Yes, absolutely.
“They can get power from renewable energy sources – like wind, solar and geothermal. They can use an efficient solution to move electricity from the grid to the device. They may also have more efficient server and network and storage devices. And when we’re talking about kind of efficiency here, we’re thinking about the relative physical footprint (how much space this device takes up), what the power consumption is, as well as what heat is produced? Because, as most people know, the problem with data centers is that all these IT devices are in them – creating and massive the amount of heat and how you control and manage it to protect the equipment, but do it in an efficient way.
“But we can’t forget about applications either – you know they’re the real consumers of the data center. We can be more efficient in design and flexibility of our applications so that they can use right resources on right time in right location to really minimize their impact on the environment.”
How to get into the details of data center decarbonisation
Jody and Justin are then more detailed. We touch on monitoring IT equipment, analyzing the carbon impact of specific servers, identifying how to redistribute resources to minimize operational carbon impact and much more. We discuss building or acquiring renewable energy directly versus buying emissions offsets or renewable energy credits. We discuss the internal and various kinds of external pressures on corporations to become more sustainable—on a real and deep level. After talking a bit about the detailed range of equipment levels, more and more customers want to be able to save energy and decarbonize, Jody also emphasized the growing role of tracking results.
“There is an element of accountability and responsibility. You have to be able to do it measure and understand, “Okay, great, I did the project, I upgraded the equipment – did it move the needle like I expected?” and really be able to understand the impact. And that’s actually something that we’re really starting to see even more because as organizations go about achieving these sustainability goals and initiatives, it’s going to take an investment, but is it the right investment for the right long-term benefit? For that investment, this now means that data center managers and sustainability managers need to be able to bring those stories back to the C-suite to be able to explain and defend the reasons for that investment and the case for continued investment. able to get them there.”
I asked about the challenge of deciding when to simply continue operating with existing equipment and simply try to optimize it with one improvement after another, versus when to buy new, more efficient equipment and write off the old equipment. Justin replied thoughtfully and in detail:
“Yeah, yeah, there’s some tension, isn’t there?” So they might want to move to a more efficient infrastructure, but that’s going to contain a lot of embodied carbon, right? And it takes a lot to build, assemble, and transport all that equipment, so they don’t want to just rip and replace completely, but they’re going to want to understand when it’s optimal to replace—because they’re going to replace that hardware anyway— but with the right tools, analytics and information, they can understand when it makes sense to replace that infrastructure, when it’s starting to deteriorate operationally, but also when it’s starting to use more electricity and have more emissions associated with it. the point where you’ll want to replace it with something more effective.
“Having these tools is really helpful for them to know when it’s the right time to replace them and to understand what embodied carbon is and what e-waste would be for them — because that’s a big part of it, too. The world’s e-waste is huge, and data centers also contribute to it.”
It is a journey, a multifaceted approach
As a sort of summary of the problem, Jody states, “When we think about sustainability and improving data center operations, you know, it’s really multifaceted approach. I think you have to think about it in terms of your power supply – so where do you get your primary power for your data center, what does your local utility provide; what might be available based on where your device is located? […] You also need to think about this in relation to your backup source. That’s something to think about in terms of energy equipment, right? So when you look at that transformer equipment, you look and understand how you’re getting power from the meter to the IT racks that are in your data center. It is also about building infrastructure. So he’s thinking about it in terms of your HVAC systems that provide overall cooling and temperature control for the facility. It’s the IT infrastructure, right – server and network and storage devices. It’s about applications. They are people in process.
“Now that seems like a lot, doesn’t it? (haha) But that’s kind of all the aspects that you would look at in terms of kind of a data center – sort of the overall health or the whole sustainability aspect. But, you know, do you have to deal with everything at once? No. It’s a journey or maybe a marathon, maybe more of an urban adventure race if that’s a better analogy. (haha)”
It is fun! It’s like going to Disney World
Justin also highlighted the fun of the process: “There are also new innovations that come very quickly. As in the rest of the technology sector, it exists tone Innovation in the industry is bringing a lot of new capabilities to the fore—things like immersion cooling, which actually submerges your infrastructure in a coolant, in a liquid coolant. [There are] all these different ways of approaching the problem could be a really interesting path. There are many new AI models for managing HVAC systems and applications and all that. There are also different ways to do it. Do you want to move your calculation to another one? geography at a certain time of day? Is there a strategy you can use for this kind of data management and storage operations? You need some at this point and at other points – it’s starting to look a bit like power management where you want to use battery power when grid power is expensive and you want to use grid power when it’s cheap. […]
“It’s really about finding out how much you’re spending on electricity, where there might be savings opportunities. There might be something really simple. We recently talked to a data center that had just put some plastic curtains around certain parts of the data center to change the flow of heat, and that gave them a huge reduction in energy costs – in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So you can do all kinds of interesting things that can give you millions of dollars in savings, can give you tens of thousands, or can just make your life a lot easier because it’s a lot easier to send a sustainability message. manager about what your emissions are and what your plan is to reduce them.”
Jokingly (but I really love this metaphor) I compared it to going to Disney World. “I think we can say that’s pretty much it. exactly like going to Disney World – that’s basically what you’re saying here. You have before you a great course, a great adventure; you have various technological innovations, it’s exciting; sometimes you have a headache, you feel exhausted; you have to plan your projects — ‘we’ll tackle this one now, that one later’; you can explore different worlds. I wanted to make a joke earlier and then you added to it. I was like, ‘This is the perfect metaphor.’ The only thing you don’t have is screaming kids behind you, but if you work from home, maybe you do – you’re the techie, aren’t you?’
There’s much, much more to the podcast. Listen to the full discussion to learn more about decarbonizing data centers thoroughly, efficiently and thoughtfully.
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