Features 10.08.2023

SOS: Data Centres Are Running Out of Power

There’s no denying that data centres have a power problem. The more uncertain question is, how do we fix it?

As we increasingly rely on data centres for, well, everything, they gobble up more and more power that is ultimately running out. Feeling anxious about this upcoming data centre power crisis? You should be, finds Callum Booth

Over the past 15 years, our relationship with technology has fundamentally changed. We’re no longer tied to a single location; we can pretty much do anything, anywhere. The unsung hero of this shift? The humble data centre.

Whether accessing work files from different countries, streaming media on any device we own, or communicating with voice-activated assistants, data centres are behind it all; they’re our digital lungs, always working and providing a vital service, often without us even noticing.

But all good things come to an end, right? The aforementioned humble data centre faces a choking point: power.

The amount we rely on data centres is steadily increasing, meaning they’re gobbling up more and more electricity. Alongside this, much of Europe has experienced an energy crisis, with the UK even facing warnings last winter that it could suffer power cuts.

Here at Assured Intelligence, we learnt about the Gigamon ‘Beyond the Physical Plant: Reduce Energy Usage Before it Begins’ whitepaper when our editor, Eleanor Dallaway, interviewed their CEO, Shane Buckley. With our eyes wide open, we decided to investigate. What happens if data centres, the lungs of our modern world, run out of power? Can we stop this from happening? And how can we do so in the greenest way possible?

First, let’s explore the current data centres’ energy usage situation.

Not enough power to continue as we are

“Data centres consume a lot of electricity, accounting for about 1% of the global energy demand,” says Jad Jebara, the president of and CEO of Hyperview, a data centre infrastructure management (DCIM) company.

He continues: “This will likely grow with the rising demand for data centres, especially with the surge in artificial intelligence (AI), which requires a lot of computing power, memory, storage, and energy to run.”

Rees Westley, the head of utilities at Business Critical Solutions, a data centre consultancy firm, supports this view. He tells me that, in his company’s survey of over 3,000 professionals in the space, 81% of respondents “expect consumption levels to rise over the next three years.”

The backdrop to this upcoming surge in energy usage is worrying: “The availability of power supply is a big challenge for all data centre providers across Europe,” Westley says.

Things are particularly bad in Great Britain. Westley explains that with the country’s continuing growth of digital services, “we are fast approaching the crunch point where we have to accept that, in the UK, we simply do not have enough power to continue as we are.”

Westley paints a grim picture of the future. He says the National Grid is depleted, the ability to import or export power is lacking, and there’s a dearth of investment in the power sector. This is all alongside an “infrastructure [that] is not really fit for purpose.”

So what happens if data centres run out of power?

Jebara from Hyperview says a situation like this could lead to outages or brownouts, especially in areas where the grid is unreliable.

A mission to stop the lights going out

In terms of the impact, Jebara says that — depending on the duration and type of outage — it could lead to “data loss or corruption, disruption or degradation of services, security breaches, financial losses, reputational damage, legal liabilities, and possibly harm to people or equipment.”

Not much to worry about, then.

When Assured Intelligence posed this issue of data centres running out of power to Paul Tincknell — ISG global asset recovery leader and strategist at Lenovo — he offered a similarly bleak prediction. He explains that because data centres “drive almost everything in the modern world, from food delivery to banking to communications,” any outages would have a “far-reaching impact across industries, sectors, and society as a whole.”

In other words, the world as we know it would crumble.

All the experts Assured Intelligence spoke with agreed there is a real danger of data centres running out of power, so this begs the follow-up question: how do we stop it?

Cutting down, scaling up

If upgrading the grid is out of the question, the easiest way of ensuring data centres don’t run out of energy is reducing how much they use.

Tincknell suggests that one easy win is replacing outdated hardware. “Part of the problem is that servers have a long lifetime: up to ten years,” he says. Data centres often have “machines that no one is quite sure what they are doing — but people are too afraid to switch them off.”

The solution could be getting new, more energy-efficient hardware, something Tincknell believes “can quickly pay for itself by reducing the amount of energy that servers draw.”

Tom Fairbairn, distinguished engineer at Solace, offers another suggestion. He helps companies like the London Stock Exchange, Barclays, and NASA manage their data. He says the only practical solution to using less power is “to do more work per watt.”

“One example of this is the recent adoption of ARM architecture processors by some hyper scalers and Apple,” he says, “which offer considerably more computation per watt than equivalent x86 architectures.”

The problem is that many large data centre organisations have legacy software and skills gaps that act as blockers and stop this from happening quickly.

This trend of disorganisation in data centre operations is something Jebara from Hyperview mentions. He tells Assured Intelligence that even though “data centres are often cited as one of the biggest consumers of electricity in the world, up to 50% of this energy consumption is caused by inefficient management.”

He says this can be fixed through various means, but it requires a continuous and ongoing optimisation process.

The path to sustainability

We’ve learnt that the key to reducing how much energy data centres use is increasing efficiency, but they still need to use an almighty amount of power.

“We are fast approaching the crunch point where we have to accept that, in the UK, we simply do not have enough power to continue as we are” Rees Westley

With the world facing an environmental crisis, our next issue is sourcing this sustainably. To put it another way, how can we make data centres green?

We put this question to Noel Powell, head of business development at SSE Energy Solutions, one of the UK’s ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers.

“Some businesses might think that simply sticking some solar panels on the roof of a building is all they can or need to do,” he says, “but why stop there?”

Powell says there are a range of other options which “could allow a data centre to be almost entirely self-reliant.” This includes photovoltaics, ground and air source heat pumps, and smart heating and lighting systems.

Another avenue he focuses on is the thermal energy that data centres generate; “around two to three times the amount of heat compared to the power they consume,” he tells me. Powell says this could potentially be used to heat buildings in the vicinity.

Take action… before it’s too late

It’s entirely uncontroversial to say that something needs to be done to combat data centres’ looming energy crisis, but how do we make it happen?

Well, one way is to get tech vendors and boards involved.

Fairbairn from Solace believes one avenue would be a more open approach to data. He tells me that “sustainability impact in product design has only, so far, been considered for consumer products or heavy machinery.”

Incorporating this into board-level decisions about what data centre to use could significantly impact the industry.

Tincknell from Lenovo agrees, telling me there needs to be a holistic approach regarding making data centres sustainable. “It’s an area where vendors, partners and customers will need to work closely together, taking an overview of every part of the journey, from when a server arrives at a data centre to the moment when it’s recycled, upcycled or reused.”

These approaches will be vital to fixing the data centre power problem. It’s not something that can be done alone. Instead, it’s a topic the entire industry needs to confront.

Data centre operators must update and optimise their equipment; building owners must invest in sustainable power; and tech vendors and board-level executives must make it known they want detailed information on the sustainability of those they’re working with.

If all these groups can come together, then we may be able to fix the issue before it’s too late.

Data centres are the lungs of the online world — and it’s time we started caring for them.

Latest articles

Be an insider. Sign up now!