We take it for granted the ATM will always give us our cash when we want it. We expect our smartphone to work at any time of day or night. It’s the reliability of data centres which house the vital IT equipment responsible for these technologies that allows us to feel so much confidence; but reliability doesn’t come cheap. Data centres have a reputation of being energy hungry buildings. With demand growing rapidly, this represents a huge cost and a big carbon footprint.
Industry research estimates data centres use around 1.3% of total global energy. In the UK power demand increased by nearly 9% in 2013. The challenge is to reduce energy consumption whilst maintaining the resilience and capacity of these critical IT facilities.
The search is on for engineering technologies capable of mitigating energy use without compromising reliability and resilience. Part of the problem is the inefficiency created by data centres operating at less than full capacity. To meet this challenge, new data centre designs are emerging based on modular systems which allow supporting plant to be added piece by piece to better match the actual energy demand. Coupled with this, using pumps on water systems which can run at variable speeds, means they only draw the power they need, when they need it. New and more energy efficient equipment, like backup generators and Uninterruptable Powers Supplies (UPS) which keep data centres running if the power fails offer some improvement, but it’s not the only answer.
Perhaps the biggest area of energy saving is geography; locating data centres in a climate where the ambient temperature range throughout a significant proportion of the year allows the IT equipment be cooled naturally. This approach is called free cooling. It relies on fans to move large volumes of filtered fresh air though the data centre to cool the IT equipment. The absence of large electrically powered cooling plant represents a big saving in capital and energy costs.
Most data centres try to combine as many of these technologies as possible. As energy costs increase and demand for space in data centres escalates, it’s likely that new technology innovation will be the source of the next big steps in optimising energy performance and efficiency.
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