Beyond Clean Energy: Technology Must Help Address Data Center Challenges

By December 10, 2021 January 6th, 2022 No Comments
A generation ago, most companies dedicated space in their buildings to house the many racks of servers needed to power their internal networks. For most, this dedicated room created a double-edged sword of challenges.

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A generation ago, most companies dedicated space in their buildings to house the many racks of servers needed to power their internal networks. For most, this dedicated room created a double-edged sword of challenges. As the company’s networking demands grew, so did the number of servers, as well as the amount of heat generated by the machinery. To offset that heat, companies incorporated cooling systems, which in turn led to greater energy consumption and costs.

Today, many of those same companies have replaced their internal server rooms with a cloud-based service, often provided by one of the big tech companies, such as Amazon, Google or Microsoft. In theory, this shift placed the energy challenges on the tech giants who have shown that they not only compete on their service offerings but also how they do so in a more sustainable – and creative – way.

Microsoft last year made headlines with a multi-year energy-reduction experiment that involved submerging a shipping-container-sized datacenter into the waters off the coast of Scotland and tracking its performance over a two-year period. The company concluded that the concept was not only feasible but also “logistically, environmentally and economically practical.”

Technology leaders around the globe, especially those who enable data-hungry applications and platforms, are making ambitious decarbonization commitments. Google, for example, has set a 2030 deadline for around-the-clock power to all of its offices and datacenters from clean sources. Last year, the company consumed 67 percent of its datacenter electricity from renewable sources, with some individual datacenters at 90 percent clean energy consumption.

In China, the Baidu Cloud Computing (Yangquan) Center was the first data center in that country to apply solar energy, wide voltage, direct grid connection technology. The center introduced a new era of green energy conservation in data centers, generating about 120,000 kWh annually while reducing carbon dioxide emission by about 110 tons per year.

In Europe, Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) were among the initial signers of the European-based Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, which aims for climate neutral data centers across that continent by 2030.

So far, these and other efforts seemed to have had an impact. The migration to large cloud- and hyperscale-class data centers has helped cut the global IT carbon footprint by as much as 38 percent in 2020 and, between 2010 and 2018, data center output jumped 6-fold but data center energy consumption rose by only 6 percent.

Figure 1. Tech groups are the biggest corporate buyers of green energy

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But the demand for data continues to grow exponentially. Alongside the corporate IT shift came a consumer-centric leap in data via their own targeted cloud-based services, including social media. The The Financial Times reported earlier this year that the combined power usage of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple is already more than 45 terawatt-hours a year, about as much as New Zealand.

Now, the adoption of data-heavy artificial intelligence and machine learning applications by companies of all sizes is gaining traction, driving even more data processing through the networks. The forecast for growth in AI and ML adoption suggests that the demands on data centers could eventually outpace any gains in efficiency.
Already, the tech companies have become some of the largest corporate buyers of clean energy for their massive data centers – but it isn’t enough. The industry is facing increased pressure – from environmentalists to politicians to their own employees – to do a better job when it comes to “going green.”

Figure 2. Social Value – When Replacing HDDs in Data Centers around the World with SSDs

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In a March 2021 keynote speech, SK hynix CEO Seok-hee Lee called on the semiconductor industry to accelerate innovation that addresses climate issues. For example, if data centers replaced their current hard disk drive (HDD)-based data storage systems with low-power PLC/QLC-based solid-state drives (SSDs), greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by about 41 million tons.

The industry must look beyond the needs of today and develop technologies that can be expanded and leveraged in the future to accommodate the still-unknown demands of the future. Already, SK hynix is developing specialized semiconductor technologies that focus on a single characteristic, such as High-Bandwidth Memory (HBM) for high-speed processing and Ultra-low Power Memory (ULM) for consuming less power. The company has also declared that it will replace all the power required in the semiconductor manufacturing process with renewable energy by 2050.

Beyond that, there must also be a commitment to collaboration and cooperation among industries to address the growth of data-powered world and its impact on the environment, from academia to manufacturing. Along with SK Group’s other subsidiary companies, SK hynix has joined the RE100, a global corporate renewable energy initiative.