Equinix’s Michael Winterson says the industry does not deserve its bad image when it comes to energy use. He discusses innovation and sustainability with Louise Frampton
The Uptime Institute’s 2018 survey shows data centre operators are continuing to lower energy waste. “The portrayal of data centres as ‘big, energy hungry, pollution machines’ couldn’t be further from the truth,” comments, Equinix Services managing director Michael Winterson.
“We have a natural propensity to seek out energy efficiency, which people don’t always understand about the data centre industry.”
According to the survey results, the average PUE in 2007 was reported to be 2.5 – this figure improved to 1.98 in 2011 and to 1.65 in 2013. Since then, improvements have been incremental, reaching a record average PUE of 1.58 in 2018.
Equinix is one of the many data centre operators striving to reduce its environmental impact – the company has a long-term goal of using 100% clean and renewable energy for its global platform, and has adopted more aggressive regional PUE design targets for new sites, as well as major expansions.
“Twenty years ago, if a client used a kW of power in my data centre, I would need to use 1.5kW. During this period, this has been reduced to 200W. That is a reduction of 86%. This isn’t just us, the entire industry has sought these efficiencies, as energy is one of the highest costs for data centres,” comments Winterson.
“The industry has dramatically reduced the amount of energy necessary to deliver a service to a client – whether it is a video on YouTube or a mission critical application.”
Winterson says it is “part of the industry’s DNA to build a data centre that is better than the one before” and there has been a drive to seek out the next generation in energy sustainable solutions.
Equinix believes the use of distributed generation will yield significant clean energy benefits, as well as increasing resilience and reducing the risks of large-scale power outages and cascade failures. To this end, the company is incorporating more rooftop solar into its portfolio and supporting new technologies, such as fuel cells.
“We have instituted within our business a sustainable practices team. This is not just ‘a couple of pages on our website’; there are people dedicating their time to analysing the business and societal value of any technology that is being put out there,” Winterson explains.
Equinix is currently trialling a range of technologies to establish whether these energy efficient solutions can be migrated from the laboratory to a real-world business context. This includes the use of hydrogen gas generation in Silicon Valley.
“There is a 1MW solution on the campus that we are working on. We are also performing a test of aquifer thermal energy storage (ATES) technology in Amsterdam and London,” says Winterson. This geothermal technology can achieve seasonal energy efficiency ratio values in excess of 60 – four to six times more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems.
“Typically, a data centre will use 1W of electricity to clear out 7W of heat – a 7:1 ratio. With this ATES technology, we can achieve a ratio of 100:1, so we can move 100KW of heat per 1KW of actual electricity consumed. We have to find this next generation of ‘huge’ technologies, as we are getting close to the edge of perfection,” Winterson continues.
Equinix is also working with a group in Sweden on the capture and resale of heat, Winterson reveals. “There is potential, if we can capture enough heat from our customers, that our theoretical energy use could drop to a negative number. If we can capture 200W of heat and only use 200W to power the data centre, we will effectively be running the data centre for free. This is the next generation, where we become energy neutral,” he says.
Government regulation, according to Winterson, may actually disincentivise the market from adopting the latest generations of technology.
“By the time the regulation becomes law, the horse will have already bolted and you will be shutting the door on an empty barn,” he comments.
Nevertheless, there is a need for national incentives, to support the adoption of energy efficient technologies, and strategic thinking on a governmental level. “I’m not talking about tax breaks. The next generation of energy efficiencies are going to come from joined-up thinking,” says Winterson.
As the industry grows, dirty servers are being replaced by clean, energy-efficient servers, and Winterson argues that, if we digitise what were once physical services, the planet will benefit from reduced waste, pollution and materials.
Winterson believes governments need to understand that digitisation is the only way to sustain a growing and more urban population and that they need to work with industry.
He highlights the potential of big energy users to participate in national grid balancing schemes, for example. At the moment, the business case for Equinix does not stack up – participation in demand side response will require engagement from government departments and long-term planning, in his view.
“The next generation of energy efficiency will need to be industry-wide and coordinated with some kind of government policy… We need to think big about this; about the future of a digital economy,” he comments.
Winterson points out that customers are increasingly demanding green credentials from data centre providers and this has been a key driver behind the company’s pledge to use 100% clean, renewable energy across its data centre platform. So far, Equinix has already achieved 56% renewable energy coverage worldwide, helping customers to ‘green their supply chains’ and meet corporate sustainability objectives.
Winterson believes greater collaboration between the data centre industry and its customers is now required to drive improvement further – to establish whether the customer’s IT is built to operate optimally. It is important to ask: have they optimised their server and network configuration? Has equipment been over-specified?
“We are now educating clients that it is better to operate less devices with a higher utilisation rate as this uses less electricity. As the client pushes us towards sustainability, we are now engaging in a reverse conversation on whether their system is actually optimised in line with what they are trying to achieve,” Winterson comments.
Increased intelligence to enable customers to have greater visibility into their physical infrastructure will help support environmental and operational decision-making in the future.
In line with demand for greater transparency, Equinix has introduced its own data centre monitoring software platform, IBX SmartView, to provide real-time event and alarm notifications, as well as enabling customers to monitor and forecast their utility usage.
In the long-term, customers will be able to pull this data into artificial intelligence systems. Equinix is evaluating the potential for next-generation power management systems, which will be AI driven.
Future efficiency gains
The data centre sector has already delivered increasing levels of energy efficiency but the next challenge goes out to the software writers, according to Winterson.
“We are already starting to see a revolution in design, where efficiency is being built into the software,” he comments.
An example of this can be seen with the development of fitness watches. Increasing intelligence is being built into these devices but this level of intelligence needs to be achieved without draining the battery.
“The Internet of Things is going to lead to a massive rewrite of software. The industry is grappling with the size of data and the amount of application power necessary to run that data,” Winterson explains.
“We are looking at the optimisation of the network, from the fitness watch to a Cloud-based service, to a web front-end, to an operating system. All this is needed to build a connected world.”
Equinix has implemented a number of energy efficient designs across its global portfolio of data centres:
• Toronto (TR2) Smart chillers provide a low, fully loaded operational PUE. They incorporate Turbocor mag-lev compressor chillers with advanced economisation features, as well as water-side economiser heat exchangers for wintertime free cooling. High-efficiency air handlers allow cold aisle containment and granular modulation of the cooling air supply, thereby reducing the amount of energy required to cool the data centre. The system is expected to provide low annual PUE of about 1.25.
• New York (NY6) Pairing indirect evaporative cooling (IDEC) with complete hot aisle containment reduces PUE in low-load situations. NY6 employs high-efficiency roof-mounted Munters IDEC units and hot aisle containment with granular supply air control. This achieves an estimated fully loaded average annual PUE of 1.21. IDEC also reduces overall mechanical cooling capacity required in many locations. Other Equinix sites, including London (LD6) and Melbourne (ME1), employ the use of IDEC units.
• Amsterdam (AM3) Aquifer thermal energy storage (ATES) is just one of the innovative features. ATES employs cold groundwater to cool equipment during winter months, eliminating the need for traditional mechanical cooling within the data centre. Excess heat is even used to warm buildings nearby. AM3 has achieved a design PUE of 1.19.
• Toronto (TR1) A deep lake water cooling (DLWC) system significantly reduces power consumption by drawing water from the chilly depths of Lake Ontario to cool buildings in downtown Toronto, including the data centre. This novel approach reduces total energy needs by 50% or more.