Cloud hyperscalers are the activists we need for sustainable data centres

6 October 2021

These days, large listed companies in particular, as well as large organisations that operate with social license such as universities, often find themselves under pressure to take a hard line on sustainability and environmental issues.

 

We see this manifest in a number of ways:

  • In pressures on boards and executives to resign fossil fuel investments or directorships
  • In the rise of ‘activist’ shareholders that use small stakes in companies to pressure management on ethical and sustainable sourcing of materials or other climate-related concerns; and
  • In the rise of corporate social responsibility, with many companies now publishing yearly sustainability reports detailing a wide range of actions they are taking (or have taken).
  • In the adoption of ‘The Climate Pledge’ and other similar net-zero carbon pledges by businesses

Which is to say that sustainability has taken on elevated importance in 2021.

It is expected that businesses and organisations - of all shapes, sizes, and sectors - will have appropriate regard for how they operate, and for their environmental footprint.

 

A data centre evolution

The same is true for data centres. The problem here is that sustainability metrics in this space are often piecemeal, and standards are still far from settled.

Traditionally, many facilities quoted power usage effectiveness (or PUE) as a standard measure of how efficiently they used energy. Others underwent specialist certifications like the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), which examined energy and water usage by a data centre.

In both cases, it was the data centre operators themselves deciding what to measure and certify to - in the hope that a customer would understand the meaning and be able to differentiate between centres based on their respective scores. It’s arguable whether these metrics really helped anyone decide where to house their servers, but it looked good in the marketing and power pass through rates.

In the past six to 12 months, what’s changed in the data centre sustainability space is that demand for sustainability is now customer-driven, as opposed to being something facility operators do to market themselves as being efficient. At the same time, organisations such as AWS, Microsoft, Google, and Oracle to name a few, have all communicated a clear direction in achieving carbon neutrality or carbon-free energy in their data centres over a range of dates to 2030.

Additionally, where those ‘customers’ of data centre space are hyperscale cloud operators, rather than individual corporates, they are writing and embedding sustainability requirements into their assessments for new space.

Since hyperscalers are buying about 80 percent of the total data centre space being brought to market, they alone are driving a huge step-change around sustainable resource usage and practices in these facilities.

They are ‘activists’ in this sense.

Their influence is hugely positive because operators that do not match up to these standards cannot do business with the hyperscalers at all. It could therefore be said the hyperscalers are uplifting sustainability for a large part of the data centre industry.

Hyperscalers’ demands go well beyond consumption of electricity or water. Instead, they seek to influence site design, construction materials used and onsite build practices, in addition to resource consumption.

That’s driving a whole new conversation about the sustainability of data centre operations, and the emergence of a new breed of operators that can match up to these new and emerging standards.

 

In the new breed

Hickory Data Centres aims to achieve industry-leading goals in sustainability and zero waste to landfill through ongoing controlled operations and by applying the Hickory Building Systems methodology which was initially developed specifically to drive innovation in building techniques for high rise buildings. This system has been used widely across a number of key developments to date, driving speed but also efficiency in the build process itself, a key contributor to the carbon footprint of a data centre.

Back in Australia, we’re building dedicated hyperscale facilities, starting in Melbourne. Our approach to sustainability covers the design and construction of the facility. For example, prefabrication reduces wastage onsite, as only the required materials are delivered to site ready for installation, ensuring waste is managed in a controlled factory environment.  We also aim to reduce environmental impact through the use of smart cooling technologies, driven by industry changes to thermal management, and will source and provide renewable energy sources to achieve carbon-neutral facilities.

However, there is no single silver bullet to sustainability. It’s an ongoing program where all facets of business operations need to be aligned from the adoption of solar for office space and deployment of battery energy to the management of e-waste and carbon offset programmes which have become increasingly popular or even standard in recent years.

 

Supply chain success

 The next horizon for sustainability will come when all organisations that participate in a company’s value chain adopt the same set of sustainable values and work towards delivering them.

That is what the hyperscalers are doing now for data centre operators. By driving a sustainability mandate through their end-to-end supply chain, hyperscalers are pushing any organisation that wants to do business with them up to meet much higher standards of sustainability than they might have been inclined to offer otherwise.

Right now, the industry is asking whether data centres can be carbon neutral. Ultimately, technology has the best chance of making this a reality and providing the sort of sustainability that we need.

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