Harnessing IT Infrastructure for Sustainability
A Pathway to Net Zero Carbon
Our duty as IT technologists to take note and be prepared.
Approximately 7-minute read, author, Phil Lees.
As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, one thing is clear: sustainability is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. The IT sector, a sizable contributor to global carbon emissions, is uniquely positioned to significantly influence the global impact on greenhouse gas emissions. It has long been known that Data Centres are major consumers of electricity, and carbon emissions. In fact, the global Data Centre industry is responsible for about 1% of global electricity consumption, producing more carbon than the global airline industry and likely to grow as we become ever more dependant on digital services.
Whilst many technology vendors such as Cisco, VMware, HPE are making big strides to improve not just the efficiency of their products, but also their whole supply chain through initiatives such as the Circular Economy, every organisation across the IT industry must act - and act fast! The challenge is that organisations are already fighting rising equipment and staff costs, reduced workforces and ever greater security threats, so looking at less imminent threats is a step too far.
However, it is more likely that a better approach to managing IT can actually reduce costs, whilst benefiting the environment. Through better management of IT infrastructure, IT services and application workloads, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint and move towards a net zero carbon future.
What can we monitor and how can we measure it?
There are three main metrics which can be monitored within a Data Centre to establish energy use effectiveness. These are:
- Hardware Energy Consumption
- PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness)
- Carbon Intensity
At WhiteSpider, we monitor these key metrics using our bespoke built Merlin platform that provides powerful insights into critical data and can provide absolute visibility and clarity. You cannot act upon what you cannot see. Merlin solves this. Energy consumption, PUE and carbon intensity are all used dynamically by Merlin to calculate the carbon emissions of your IT infrastructure. However, data only becomes valuable when it delivers actionable intelligence. In order to identify areas where energy savings can be made (and cost and GHGs reduced) we use policies to optimise the environment.
Hardware Energy Consumption
There are several measures that organisations can take to reduce the carbon footprint of their Data Centres. One of the most important starting points is to monitor and manage energy usage. At WhiteSpider we provide our customers with the ability to see not just how much power is being consumed, but also, in real-time the heat being produced, and the carbon density and energy cost at any site, on any device.
We essentially monitor the hardware of network devices, servers, storage arrays, power distribution outlets, and other IT infrastructure to identify areas where energy savings can be made.
For example, we can help identify servers that are running too hot. These servers can be configured to run at a much lower temperature, which will save energy. Alternatively, we can identify where the temperature in a room can be increased, therefore reducing the energy consumption of cooling systems. Our monitoring platform, Merlin, can also help you identify devices that are not being used. These devices can be turned off or put into standby mode, which will also save energy. This can be extended to infrastructure such as access switches, which can have a schedule created whereby they can be turned off when the location is out of hours, and back on again for the working day.
PUE: Power Usage Effectiveness
Monitoring the energy our IT infrastructure uses doesn’t quite tell the full story. We must consider the total energy that is consumed to cool, light and secure our infrastructure. This is where the PUE metric comes in. PUE is a ratio that measures the total energy consumed by a facility against energy consumed by the IT equipment itself. It's a key metric for understanding the overall energy efficiency.
At the lowest level value, a PUE of 1.0 would indicate that all energy consumed is used directly by the IT equipment. Clearly the PUE is typically greater than this. Conversely a value of 2.0 would mean that, for every unit of energy consumed by the IT equipment, an equal unit of energy is consumed by other systems.
Whilst there is no theoretical maximum, typically PUEs for private Data Centres is around 1.5, whilst hyperscale facilities, such as Microsoft, AWS and Google, the PUE can be as low as 1.2. The goal for any Data Centre is to lower its PUE using strategies such as improving the efficiency of cooling systems, using energy-effficient lighting, and optimising the layout of the Data Centre to reduce energy loss.
Carbon intensity is a measure of carbon (CO2) emissions produced per unit of another variable, often energy produced or consumed, economic output, or some other relevant metric. It's a way to quantify the environmental impact of a particular activity in terms of carbon emissions. In the context of the electricity consumption, carbon intensity refers to the amount of CO2 produced per unit of electricity consumed.
The carbon intensity of electricity varies depending on the source, with fossil fuel power plants at the high end of the scale, and renewable energy at the other. Each country continually tracks its carbon intensity which can be seen in real-time at the following link, https://app.electricitymaps.com/map. It is important to take the carbon intensity metric into account when calculating the carbon footprint of a business.
Making Better Use of the Cloud
Cloud computing has revolutionised the way we store and access data. However, the environmental impact of massive Data Centres is a growing concern. The good news is that cloud providers are increasingly focusing on renewable energy sources to power their operations and using approaches like free cooling and subsea hosting for heat management.
As a business, you can make better use of the cloud by choosing providers who prioritise sustainability. Look for those who are transparent about their energy consumption and are committed to using renewable energy. Additionally, consider adopting a cloud-native or hybrid-cloud approach. This means designing your applications specifically for the cloud, which can lead to more efficient use of resources and less energy consumption.
It should be noted however, that the sustainability and commercial efficiencies of using cloud, are directly and inextricably linked to how our applications and services are architected. It’s important to carry out a cloud readiness assessment to clearly understand the benefits, workload, cost, and implications of moving to a cloud first model. We can help you with this.
Transforming Your Business Through Energy Consumption and Environmental Management
Energy consumption and environmental management are two key areas where IT can make a significant impact. By implementing energy-efficient hardware, optimising software for better performance, and managing the lifecycle of IT equipment, businesses can drastically reduce their carbon emissions.
Virtualisation is a common strategy, along with containerisation. These approaches allow multiple services to run on a single physical server, reducing the number of servers needed and thus the energy consumed. Similarly, adopting energy-efficient cooling systems and using renewable energy sources for Data Centres can significantly reduce carbon emissions.
We commonly see something called ‘vm sprawl’. This is where lots of Virtual Machines are ‘sprayed’ across a large estate of physical hosts, with each host running at 15-20% of capacity. With better management of VM’s through workload optimisation, it is very common to see a significant reduction in host usage and as a result, a reduction in energy usage and cooling. These devices can still be consumed, it is just about being intelligent with dynamic resource management, i.e., use them when you must, not because they are there.
Driving a Net Zero Carbon Strategy with IT Solutions
IT technology solutions can play a pivotal role in driving a Net Zero Carbon strategy. Most vendors are now placing a much larger emphasis on the hardware efficiency of their devices, for example, switches and routers that have a fanless design; chipsets that run cooler or with dynamic load management. We are also seeing switches from vendors like Cisco, where they don’t have a physical power supply, the switch is powered via PoE (Power over Ethernet) from a downstream device.
Recycle and Dispose of IT Equipment Responsibly
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a significant contributor to environmental pollution. When IT equipment reaches the end of its life, it's important to dispose of it responsibly.
Many components of IT equipment can be recycled, including metals, plastics, and glass. However, some components can be hazardous if not disposed of properly, including batteries and certain types of electronic components.
There are many services available for recycling IT equipment, including manufacturer take-back programmes and third-party recycling services. These services will ensure that your old equipment is recycled or disposed of in a way that minimises its environmental impact.
When choosing a recycling service, look for one that is certified by a recognised body. These certifications ensure that the recycler follows best practices for environmental responsibility and worker safety.
In addition to recycling, consider other end-of-life strategies for your IT equipment. For example, refurbishing and reselling old equipment can extend its life and prevent it from becoming waste. Donating old equipment to schools or non-profit organisations can also be a great way to give it a second life.
A Final Word on The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol and the Climate Change Act 2008
It is clear that IT teams must have an understanding of the GHG protocol and the Climate Change Act 2008, and how these affect us as individuals and organisations, and why sustainability monitoring within IT is paramount.
Climate Change Act 2008
The Climate Change Act 2008 is legislation passed by the UK Parliament that represents the country's commitment to addressing climate change. It's notable because it makes the UK one of the few countries to have a long-term, legally binding framework for reducing carbon emissions. The main points of it are:
- Carbon Budgeting: The Act introduces a system of 'carbon budgeting' on a national scale. This involves setting five-yearly caps on the amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit.
- 2050 Target: It establishes a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.
- Climate Change Committee (CCC): It creates an independent advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, to monitor progress and advise the government on how to achieve its goals.
- Adaptation: The Act establishes a framework for building the UK's ability to adapt to climate change. This involves a risk assessment approach, with the government required to assess the risks posed by climate change and develop an adaptation program every five years.
The Climate Change Act 2008 has a significant impact on businesses in the UK, especially those in high-emission industries:
- Regulatory Requirements: Businesses will face new regulatory requirements intended to reduce carbon emissions. These will include efficiency standards, emissions reporting requirements, and limits on emissions.
- Carbon Pricing: The Act indirectly encourages carbon pricing, meaning companies emitting high levels of carbon might be financially penalised. This could increase operating costs for high-emission businesses, encouraging them to adopt greener practices.
- Innovation and Investment: To meet the Act's requirements, businesses will need to invest in new technologies or practices. This could lead to increased innovation in low-carbon products and services, creating new business opportunities.
- Reputation and Market Demand: As society becomes more conscious of climate change, businesses that align with the Act's goals might find an increased demand for their products or services. Alternatively, companies that fail to address their environmental impact might face reputational damage.
In short, the Act presents both challenges and opportunities for UK businesses. While it might impose new costs and requirements, it can also spur innovation and help companies position themselves for a low-carbon future.
The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol
The GHG protocol is a set of international standards for measuring, reporting, and verifying greenhouse gas emissions. It is the most widely used greenhouse gas accounting framework in the world, and it is used by businesses, governments, and other organisations to track their emissions and take action to reduce them.
The GHG protocol defines three scopes of greenhouse gas emissions:
- Scope 1: Direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. This includes emissions from combustion of fuels, such as those from boilers, furnaces, and vehicles.
- Scope 2: Indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy. This includes emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat, and cooling.
- Scope 3: All other indirect emissions that occur in the value chain of the reporting company. This includes emissions from transportation, waste, and upstream and downstream activities.
The GHG protocol provides guidance on how to measure and report emissions from all three scopes. This guidance is designed to be consistent and transparent, so that organisations can compare their emissions with other organisations and track their progress over time.
A key observation here is scope 3. This is talking about emissions that occur in any part of the supply chain. This is important, because if you are part of someone’s supply chain, from manufacture to service enablement (could be lots of organisations), and you are not taking your sustainability management seriously, an organisation higher up the food chain may be forced to replace you with an organisation that doesn’t impact the emissions of the overall supply chain.
Whether we like it or not, we must take sustainability seriously and plan for its management accordingly. Our role as technologists is primarily around managing the emissions and footprint of our IT estate, therefore it is important that we can report on this to provide a metric that can be tracked.
If any of the above is of interest or you’d like to find out more, get in touch, we’re a friendly team keen to advise and share knowledge.