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Data Center Sustainability: Missed or Hidden Opportunities at the Rack Level

Posted by RF Code

Data centers are the heart of many organizations that want to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. As data centers and edge Infrastructure expands, so too do carbon emissions. Improved facility cooling solutions are the media's most obvious and most covered topic. This article explores hidden and missed IT sustainability opportunities that can contribute to improved data center efficiencies.

One of the largest and oldest insurance companies in the U.S. (“Like a good neighbor…”) hired RF Code to do a proof-of-concept installation of RF Code's asset lifecycle management solution. The initial use case was to empower the giant insurer’s data center operators to locate an asset anywhere in the facility with 99% accuracy on demand, and to feed that real-time, accurate data via integration with Nlyte, the insurer’s DCIM tool of choice. As part of the proof-of-concept, RF Code went beyond asset tracking sensors to show the data center team RF Code’s complete asset automation suite, including environmental and power monitoring sensors and readers in a few racks.

Once setup, the environmental sensors detected an unusual temperature spike on one of the racks. However, the large insurer’s data center representative did not believe it and challenged the accuracy of the data, claiming that their current BMS system was not reporting any issues. RF Code active sensors and real-time data reporting are consistently 99% accurate compared to DCIM and BMS systems, which prompted the data center team to deploy a team member to the floor and manually check the temperature using a thermal probe.

Sure enough, the representative found that the rack in question had a temperature spike of over 100 degrees. It was due to a rack blanking panel that was removed before the Proof-of-Concept test and never replaced. Once the blanking panel was reinstalled, RF Code's active sensors and real-time environmental dashboard showed a return to normalcy. The insurer's data center team realized that RF Code’s solution saved tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and excess power when ineffectually trying to cool one rack.

The pandemic changed the way we do business, especially in IT. As we move toward a decentralized world full of hybrid and remote workers, AI and IoT technology will lead the way in data center automation and efficiency, which will in turn impact sustainability. In this all-encompassing guide, we’ll dive into the goals you should set moving forward regarding your data centers—and the metrics you should measure to get there.

Starting Your Journey Towards a More Sustainable Data Center and IT Infrastructure

data center sustainability

In contrast to daily deadline-oriented IT projects, sustainability goals and programs don’t have an end date. Your goals will change as the world around you changes, and they’ll involve constantly altering your operations and your existing IT infrastructure. These changes will last well into the future—so starting strong now is the best way to set yourself up for success down the road.

Let’s dive into your short-, mid-, and long-term goals regarding data center sustainability and the milestones you should hit along the way.

Short-Term Goal: Establishing Your Baseline

Before moving forward with your sustainability plan, you must establish your starting point. Determine the footprint your data center currently leaves behind by tracking the following metrics:

  • Scope 1 or direct emissions
  • Data center energy consumption
  • E-waste

Ideally, this baseline will suggest where and how your organization can reduce carbon emissions. Now, you can set actionable data center sustainability goals around realistic targets. Remember, every organization is unique. Realistic goals for your neighbor might be moonshots for you. Thus, you should use your company’s unique data to reach zero waste.

Data-driven solutions based on real-time information are the most effective and efficient way to reach data center sustainability. Accurate and timely data is the first step in establishing your baseline when devising strategies to reduce power usage and energy emissions. When your data center is working harder than it needs to, it imports more power and exports more heat and water waste.

Real-time data presents operators with various decisions, including reducing cooling power consumption and eliminating overcooling, altering the airflow to address hot spots and manage aisle temperatures more efficiently, and bolstering heat containment in high-density racks.

Mid-Term Goal: Setting Targets and Metrics to Determine Success

The key to establishing your target metrics is determining what is material to your data center sustainability strategy. By “material,” we mean anything of great importance to the organization and the stakeholders.

Apply materiality to pinpoint the issues you wish to prioritize and invest in any related technologies necessary to achieving your mid-term sustainability goals. Remember, operating a sustainable data center is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s more beneficial to act on bite-sized milestones than trying to overhaul your whole sustainability strategy overnight.

You may also set mid-term goals in a Green Lease Agreement. Green leases are an agreement between tenant and landlord—based on standard lease clauses—to improve sustainability during the lease period.

As a kind of sustainability pledge or contract, green leases motivate operators to make energy- and resource-efficient investments. This includes tech investments to help monitor assets within your data center, especially in understaffed or remote IT locations. Real-time data drives better decisions making, thus keeping your mid-term sustainability goals on track.

Long-Term Goal: Optimize Your Operations and IT Infrastructure

Now that you’ve established and met several of your short- and mid-term goals, it’s time to blend those best practices and frameworks with others to drive company- and industry-wide sustainability. You want these goals to continue spurring change well into the future—so solidifying systems to keep your sustainability goals on track is crucial.

Build out a checklist that includes necessary actions and measures to govern every aspect of your organization. For example, you can launch a sustainable IT awareness campaign to engrain these best practices in your company culture.

Modern tech makes these long-term goals more attainable. Devices that track, monitor, and report on data center and asset sustainability can streamline the entire process. What can you do with that data once you have it?

Let’s say your asset environmental monitoring system determined that your cooling systems are a weak point in your sustainability campaign. Here are three actionable steps you can take:

  • Leverage Economizers: If your data center is in a colder region, you can use the naturally cool ambient air to keep temperatures inside your data center sustainable. In North America, between 40% and 90% of cooling can come from outside via air economizers, according to Gartner.
  • Recycle Heat: Some equipment in your data center runs hot. Instead of heating other parts of the building with oil or electric heating devices, place the hot-running equipment in isolation structures that can funnel that heat throughout the building.
  • Optimize Air Conditioning: If you can’t leverage the naturally cold air, there are still plenty of ways you can optimize your current air conditioning setup. You can turn it off at various intervals, especially when the morning and evening air is naturally cooler. You can also vary the speed, ultimately reducing the amount of energy consumed.

Benchmarking Your Sustainability Program: Metrics You Should Know

Your data center sustainability program begins by benchmarking critical metrics associated with your strategy. Without a baseline, you won’t know if your current IT infrastructure and operations are even sustainable in the first place.

If they’re determined to be unsustainable, you’ll need to know what resources and planning you need to do to right the ship. Let’s dive into the most important metrics to consider when benchmarking your current operations and setting your sustainability goals.

Waste

The total weight of material waste generated by your data center, from construction to end-of-life, is your total waste. You can categorize waste through each phase of your data center’s lifecycle to see how you’ve fared over the years.

Like with carbon emissions, you should measure direct waste and waste generated along the data center supply chain. This also encompasses anything disposed of in landfills, as well as waste generated as the result of untaken reduction actions.

Ultimately, you’re looking to bolster your Waste Diverted metric to cut down on unsustainable practices. Waste Diverted is any waste rerouted through sustainable practices, including reuse, recycling, and remanufacturing. Instead of disposing of obsolete equipment, you can repurpose or remanufacture the equipment to work in your current systems.

For example, one growing trend revolves around battery recycling and reducing demand for lithium, nickel, and cobalt, as all three materials are expected to be highly recyclable in the future. You can also recycle UPS and VRLA batteries once they run out of juice.

Water

Data centers use an unfathomable amount of water to keep their assets cool. Data centers in the United States used 660 billion liters of water in 2020 to cool cabinets and buildings while generating power.

To measure this metric, you must consider your total onsite water usage. This includes both fresh and reclaimed water usage (with the latter being more sustainable). The more reclaimed water you use, the more potable drinking water is available for the surrounding area.

If you’re building a new data center, predicting water usage in the design phase will lead to better cooling technology, which ultimately reduces water usage. Proper monitoring will identify issues like leaks, thus creating a baseline for future improvements. You can also leverage air-cooled chillers to further cut back on water consumption.

Your water usage effectiveness (WUE) is another crucial metric to track—and has become standard under ISO/IEC 30134-9. WUE breaks potable/non-potable water use and reuses into three distinct categories: basic, intermediate, and advanced. You can use WUE metrics to track reduction in water usage across different-sized data centers.

Energy

Your total energy consumption accounts for every ounce of energy consumed (both what’s absolutely necessary and what’s not so much) to operate your data center, measured in kilowatts. This mainly concerns energy drawn from the utility grid and includes onsite energy production, such as generators, solar, and wind.

Most of your data center carbon emissions come from energy consumption. Therefore, cutting back on both unnecessary and the non-renewable energy consumption is crucial to data center sustainability. The question you should be asking yourself is, “How efficient is my current energy consumption?”

Your energy efficiency is the ratio of valuable work compared to the total energy required to do the work. In data centers, energy efficiency hinges on the work performed by various subsystems. While Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) is the most common metric, it’s used in tandem with other metrics to determine energy use efficiency.

GHG Emissions

Scope 1 GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions are direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by your data center. This includes fuel combustion, sulfur hexafluoride leaks from medium voltage switchgear, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which you can trace to cooling systems, material transposition, and mobile combustion sources.

In short, the less energy your data center uses, the less carbon dioxide (among other GHGs) it accounts for. If your data center relies on energy derived from coal, you’ll ultimately leave a larger carbon footprint than if you used natural gas or nuclear energy.

Tracking your GHG emissions is crucial to your data center sustainability strategy. Thankfully, you can leverage several modern technologies to measure these outputs. Taking regular small steps toward running a more sustainable data center ultimately reduces your GHG emissions in the long run. You can’t simply “cut back on energy” across the board—but you can put systems in place to make the energy you use more efficient, thus producing more with less.

Looking Ahead: Outlooks and Trends in Data Center and IT Infrastructure Sustainability

With your goals established and key metrics in mind, let’s look ahead to the future of data center sustainability. What do the current findings, forecasts, and statistics say about evolving trends?

First of all, where is this push for data center sustainability coming from? The answer is the customer. Data from an S&P 500 report showed that 86% of companies published sustainability reports in 2018. Their customers want to know what kind of practices they’re implementing to help curb humanity’s impact on the environment. Seeing how most companies have high IT demand, their data centers represent a crucial element of their carbon footprint.

The 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact is the perfect example of companies and politicians worldwide coming together to achieve one common goal—to adopt clean energy and decarbonize our grids.

Rerouting your data center’s energy usage to clean solutions may be challenging, but it has significant benefits. First of all, you’ll identify areas where energy efficiency is lacking in your current operations. For example, you may notice that your cooling systems are working harder than they need to. Remedying that issue puts you on a better path right away.

Data center sustainability also leans on the assets themselves. The industry has benefited from advances in chip technology over the past few decades, a trend that’s slowed in recent years as IT energy efficiency hasn’t kept up with raw computing performance. However, that’s poised to change in 2022.

Moore’s Law dictates that computer speed and capabilities will double every two years. While we’ve seen a slight decline recently, experts predict Moore’s Law will resume in 2022. Companies like Intel are already making strides in server processing, building on enhanced versions of their 10nm technology.

Regulations are also getting tighter, as data center managers must produce more rigorous sustainability reporting to governing bodies. Unfortunately, many of the methods and requirements for reducing carbon emissions will be complicated and may seem counterproductive. This will frustrate many managers and may lead to disagreements between parties.

While most managers believe the industry needs more regulation to improve sustainability (63%), they don’t trust the regulators who set the rules. Perhaps it’s time to let those who know best carry the data center industry into a more sustainable future.

The industry is trending towards more sustainable operations. What best practices and technologies can you employ to contribute to future sustainability?

Renewable Energy

The Facebook data center in Lulea, Sweden, is considered the ‘green’ poster child for data center sustainability. They use natural air cooling and hydropower to produce renewable, clean energy, thus reducing carbon emissions. How can you implement greener renewable energy sources like these in your own systems?

AI-Assisted Cooling Control

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is the perfect example of leveraging AI to automate the cooling processes in their facilities. The cloud-based engine uses real-time information collected from sensors around the data center to make accurate predictions about future energy consumption. Then, it determines which actions will minimize energy use, lowering cooling costs in their data center by as much as 40%.

Fuel Cells and Energy Storage

You can quickly refill hydrogen fuel cells to provide backup power for your data center. As a sustainability bonus, the only by-product of these fuel cells is water.

As of February 2022, NorthC in The Netherlands became the first European data center to implement hydrogen fuel cells for backup power. While retrofitting legacy assets with new technologies isn’t easy, it’s crucial for moving the needle towards energy efficiency and sustainability.

How RF Code Can Contribute to Your Sustainability Efforts

You’ve set your goals and determined the most important metrics to track regarding your data center’s environmental impact. With current trends in data center sustainability in mind, it’s time to invest in products and services to bring your operations into the modern age.

RF Code is an industry leader in real-time critical asset monitoring solutions in data centers and remote IT spaces. Let’s explore how partnering with RF Code can help you better handle power monitoring, environmental monitoring, and asset management.

Power Monitoring: The Key to Energy Efficiency

Data centers and the way they draw power from the grid have become a hot topic among experts in recent years. Blockchain technology highlighted how unsustainable traditional data center practices were, due to inefficient energy consumption. So what can you do about this in your data center?

The answer is a robust power monitoring solution. How else will operators know if (and when) their assets are consuming too much unnecessary energy? Vigorous PUE begins with real-time usage data. With this information in hand, data centers can take strides toward more sustainable practices.

RF Code’s rack power monitoring solutions make data center operators more proactive in their roles. They can better manage and monitor rack power consumption while maximizing efficiency and rack capacity. Thanks to real-time power metrics, operators can ensure uptime, reduce the cost of total ownership, and improve capacity planning.

You can deploy RF Code’s highly scalable and wire-free RFID and RPDU sensors without compromising security. They’ll deliver real-time data and warnings whenever they detect a problem while helping you balance asset reliability and energy costs.

Environmental Monitoring: A Valuable Piece of Sustainability in Data Centers

While monitoring how your data center impacts the outside environment, remember that your internal atmosphere is just as important. Monitoring your internal environment makes it easier to maintain efficient operations, thus leading to a more sustainable data center overall.

For example, heat is among the most obvious tangibles you can track. Hot servers draw more power, and knowing which are running hot makes IT’s job much easier. Rack-level environmental data is crucial to ensuring each asset is running smoothly.

RF Code knows the importance of environmental monitoring at the rack level and supplies data centers with the tools and equipment necessary to extract real-time data from every rack. Examining granular, automated, and real-time information is the most effective strategy one can use to reduce power consumption and expenses. Data center sustainability hinges on data-driven solutions.

Unlike others in the field, RF Code leverages wire-free sensors to relay information to the DCIM software system. Furthermore, RF Code data is 99% accurate compared to the average 85% accuracy of others. And when it comes to saving time and money, data accuracy is king.

In your remote and decentralized IT spaces, RF Code’s Sentry offers an additional all-in-one answer to your environmental monitoring solutions. You’ll get the what, when, and why of any problems that emerge in your IT closets—in real time!

Asset Management Ensures Overall Operational Sustainability

Knowing which server rack is causing the problem is only half the battle. The real test is how quickly you can solve the problem with new, more efficient solutions. What happens when you manage a massive data center with hundreds (if not thousands) of server racks? How will you know which rack is the offender? Furthermore, how will you know where to find the replacement equipment?

Conducting asset management on the rack level is far more efficient than sending your IT team to inspect each server manually. Real-time alerts tell them exactly where to go, which rack to remove, and where to find replacement equipment within the facility.

RF Code provides the tools you need to bolster data center sustainability. However, it is not the complete solution. Think of RF Code’s products and services as essential “pieces of the puzzle,” as sustainability combines environmental monitoring and asset tracking solutions.

Asset tracking solutions from RF Code allow your IT asset manager to improve management processes drastically. Easy-to-fit RF Code asset tags are applied to each new piece of equipment upon arrival. These tags deliver 99% location accuracy across the asset’s life cycle and provide real-time information on their location.

RF Code: Keeping Data Centers Sustainable Through Smart Power Monitoring, Environmental Monitoring, and Asset Lifecycle Management.

Whether you’re managing remote IT spaces or large-scale data centers, sustainability is a constant challenge. But by making data center sustainability a priority, you’re helping the environment—and saving yourself valuable time, money, and effort.

It begins by ensuring your servers are maintained at peak-performing conditions. This includes sustainable temperatures and energy consumption, two crucial pillars in the sustainability conversation. In the end, proper monitoring, tracking, and real-time data are key to efficiency and longevity.

Thankfully, RF Code offers a variety of asset lifecycle management and environmental monitoring solutions for data centers, the edge, and remote IT spaces. Get in touch today to learn more about how RF Code data center solutions can contribute to your sustainability initiatives.