If data is the new oil, then data centers represent the oil reserves critical to power the digital economy. Unlike oil, however, the world's data reserves are unlikely to recede in importance. In fact, as humanity generates more data, the demand for electricity to keep data centers running is accelerating.
Some estimates suggest that data centers currently consume around 2% of the world's electricity. This is creating some environmental concerns: for example, at their current level of performance, data centers could account for 5.5% of the world's carbon emission while consuming 20% of all electricity by the year 2025.
And in a not too distant future, 5G networks will unleash the power of the Internet of things (IoT), connecting millions of data-generating devices that speed access to information and entertainment services. Gartnerestimates these devices will number 25 billion by 2021. This, of course, is in addition to the millions of new internet users, and other connected devices, that will go online in the coming years. These devices and users are shaping the proverbial tsunami of data, all of which must be stored on always-on servers — all of which will add to the already fast-growing demand for electricity.
Data centers will contribute 14% of the world's carbon emissions by 2040 according to a study from McMaster University in Canada. This presents a challenge not just for the organizations that operate these data centers and the countries in which they reside, but also the global economy.
Safeguards are needed to contain, if not minimize, the potential impact of this imminent data deluge. This will require a long-term concerted effort and cooperation of all stakeholders across the energy value chain — from enterprises to governments.
Environmentally conscious enterprises can put in place short-term measures that will help reduce their individual carbon footprints. Part one of this series looks at the factors driving the surge in data and its impact on energy consumption. Part two will look at how enterprises can balance digital innovation with environmental consciousness.
The power to serve lots and lots of servers
With its stream of apps and devices, digitization has allowed enterprises to deliver unique experiences to users. Companies across the board are competing to differentiate by employing approaches such as design thinking to enhance user experience and improve brand stickiness. These experiences are created by slicing and dicing user data to understand their needs and create hyper-personalized experiences — the more user data a business has, the better the chances of creating a unique offering. With more than 3.7 billion humans on the internet, the data generated is piling up.
But that is just the tip of the data iceberg. IoT devices are being used on the factory floor to enable operational efficiencies, facilitate smart building energy management and, deliver more transparent supply chains. And smart grids are emerging to deliver mobile services for locating parking spots and to power connected health services that improve treatment outcomes.
The IoT also enables proactive and predictive maintenance of factories by detecting changes in machines that might lead to increased power consumption. Granular data from IoT devices can be coalesced to identify areas for creating efficiencies in a manufacturing company by analyzing and optimizing processes, or to make operational changes to enhance a customer’s experience inside a retail store.
All of this will vastly increase the amount of data that will be generated and need to be stored over time. Machine-to-machine (M2M) connections are expected to encompass 51% of the total devices and connections on the internet by 2022 that, combined with all the other connected devices, are expected to be 5 zettabytes of IP traffic per year by 2022.
Moreover, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) will add to the data proliferating on servers, as more and more data is needed to train and improve the performance of machine- and deep-learning algorithms.
Singing the energy blues
As 5G networks go live, they too are expected to put additional demands on energy. These networks are expected to provide data transfer speeds that are up to 1,000 times faster than existing 4G networks (1-10Gbps compared to 100Mbps). The higher energy consumption of 5G networks is due to the increase in small cells and massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antennas that are needed to ensure faster data speeds.
All told, this will put a huge strain on data centers, as organizations will need to think through factors such as location and the power generation costs for everything — from keeping the center running to maintaining its temperature. To put this in perspective, consider the fact that several of the world’s top 10 largest data centers are located in warm places such as Nevada, Bangalore, and Georgia. Cooling costs, in some cases, can be as high as two-thirds of the cost of running the data center.
Take data centers located in the U.S. Although they have become more efficient over the years, a 2016 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy found that more than one-third of the electricity consumption could be further reduced.
To succeed in the digital era, businesses must be aware of the carbon footprint that digital and associated technologies are creating. It is imperative that they work to balance the costs of building and running data centers while reducing the energy consumed, thus helping to reduce cuts and curb carbon emissions.
Understandably, this will not be easy, but technological advances and emerging best practices could show a way forward. Part 2 of this series will look at ways that enterprises can reduce data center costs by containing their energy requirements.
Ranga Vangipuram, Senior Director, Technology, TK Srinivas, Director, Business Development, and Preeti Chhaparia, Senior Associate, at Cognizant’s Global Technology Office (GTO), contributed to this article.