- By Michael Dempsey
- Technology of Business reporter
So much of what we do every day involves a data center. Shopping online, streaming TV shows, reading this story – all need data to be stored and easily accessible.
The immediacy and convenience of these services is great, but it costs money.
Data centers need huge amounts of electricity to keep them running – a large facility will use as much electricity as a medium-sized city.
The situation is particularly acute in Ireland, where a relatively small power grid has a huge number of data centers.
More than 20 of these are in Dublin where Microsoft and Amazon have built very large sites.
This alarming demand for electricity has forced the Irish government to take action.
Sustainability is now a requirement for approval of new data centers with the government stating that “newly built data centers must be able to flexibly reduce power consumption”.
The technology is used in hopes of making data centers less of a burden on the power grid.
A new facility, opened at Grange Castle on the outskirts of Dublin, has its connection to the electricity grid managed by software from the company Eaton in collaboration with the energy giant Enel.
If the wider power grid is under stress, power to the data center is cut off and back-up systems kick in immediately.
All data centers have sophisticated standby systems that keep them running in the event of power outages.
The first line of this defense is Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) units. These are effectively sophisticated batteries that break instantly the second they are needed and run long enough for a diesel generator to start or for power to be restored.
At Grange Castle, Eaton’s UPS intervenes and releases power to the grid when the grid’s electrical frequency, measured in hertz, fluctuates in a way that indicates it is under stress.
It could be when power from unstable sources, such as Ireland’s large wind farms, drops.
Many data centers already take demand off the grid for a pre-defined period using established technology from companies such as Schneider Electric and Vertiv.
But the Grange Castle arrangement is said to be the first time a live, dynamic relationship has been established between a data center and a national grid.
Ciaran Forde from Eaton is a physicist specializing in data centers. He says Eaton’s system acts as a pressure valve that pulls the data center off the grid for valuable interludes.
The data center owners are paid for this flexibility by the Irish network operator.
Jay Dietrich, of the Uptime Institute that certifies data centers for resiliency and reliability, says income is probably the number one reason data center owners are anxious to be flexible.
“They’re not doing this for noble reasons. They’re doing it for cash flow and revenue,” said Mr. Dietrich, whose career has involved work on energy policy and climate change at IBM.
Ireland provides a snapshot of a global problem.
In July 2022, London’s governing body, the Greater London Authority, wrote to housing developers in the west of the capital warning that they could face lengthy waits before new developments could be connected to the grid.
Despite housing shortages across London, new housing projects could face a decade-long delay as Thames Valley data centers run out of electrical capacity, leaving the circuit unable to guarantee power to London’s growing population.
How did we get here? Eaton’s Mr Forde says that’s really down to the explosive growth of cloud computing – the trend that has seen companies outsource much of their data storage and processing to third-party companies such as Amazon and Microsoft.
He points out that using the term “cloud” is very misleading, as it is “a very physical thing”.
The cloud does not float in the atmosphere, it consists of computer servers with a large appetite for electricity.
The Irish example highlights how a combination of environmental concerns and concerns about network capacity has sparked a race to save the reputation of the data center industry.
New technology fixes are being developed.
In Brunello, a town near the Swiss border in northern Italy, data management company Pure Storage is putting a data center on a digital diet by trimming bits and bytes and trashing excess information.
Storage devices at Brunello use software that detects when information is unnecessarily duplicated and deletes that material. This process of perpetual review and deletion limits ballooning volumes of data.
It sounds like a mundane job for the IT department, but this program takes on the data center industry’s biggest enemy head-on. It reduces the terrible appetite for electrical power that characterizes all data centers. Pure claims it can cut as much as 80% of a data center’s power consumption.
Pure-bred boss James Petter, who came to technology via the British Army and Coca-Cola, takes the problem of power consumption straight and has no illusions about its importance.
“We design our equipment around the principle of lowering energy use. And right now, all the inquiries we get from potential data center customers are about power consumption.
“They used to ask about technology and price first, but today carbon dioxide emissions and renewable energy sources are what count. It’s all about carbon footprints, everyone is on board.”
He says this trend has accelerated in the past two years as energy consumption rose to dominate the “CEO agenda”. Speaking from Riyadh, he describes how the last three data center providers he spoke to in Saudi Arabia were all deeply concerned about their carbon footprint.
Petter is reluctant to admit that there may be a limit to how much data we can store. “The macro trend is that data is increasing. I think innovation will continue, there will be new ways to store data.”
It is not in the technology industry’s commercial interest to impose limits on how many photos we all store in the cloud.
But if data centers want to win planning permission and retain public approval, they must concentrate on imaginative measures that reduce their enormous power consumption.
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