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Transparency as a Viable Sustainability Strategy for Data Center Operators

Max Schulze
Max Schulze
7 min read
Transparency as a Viable Sustainability Strategy for Data Center Operators
Photo by Chris Barbalis / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Editing by Michael J. Oghia, originally written for the SDIA.


The digital economy is growing rapidly. Internet traffic is expected to increase from 1.5 zettabytes (ZB) in 2017 to 4.8 ZB by 2022, resulting in a global growth rate of 220% in just five years (Bashroush et al., 2020). In Germany, the energy consumption of servers and data centers rose to 14 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2018 (Hintemann, 2020) – 2.4% of the country’s total primary energy production (Bundesnetzagentur, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on the reliability and availability of the underlying digital infrastructure.

Due to the Internet’s increasing relevance to all aspects of social, economic, and political life, both public and government interests in digital infrastructure are rising – infrastructure that is used to being “invisible.” While the information technology (IT) sector is already heavily regulated, data centers have been flying under the radar of regulation for quite some time. (Pfleging, 2021) But this will soon change, and facility owners will likely face increased pressure due to government scrutiny and new regulation and policy to address the environmental impact of fast-growing and largely opaque digital infrastructure.

This has already begun to appear in Frankfurt, Germany, where the municipality aims to regulate the growth of data center facilities to counteract the growing resource and electricity consumption (Kempf, 2021). In Dublin, Ireland, policymakers took it one step further when they placed an outright ban on the development of new data centers in the country, prioritizing their target of 70% clean energy, without compromising their growing production of renewable electricity on new “mega data centers” (Swinhoe, 2021). This phenomenon was seen before when Amsterdam, Netherlands – Europe’s largest data center hub – stopped the expansion of new data centers between 2019 and 2020 (Judge, 2019). These examples imply that regional authorities and decision-makers are uncertain how to handle the growth of the digital economy and its underlying infrastructure. They are reacting with short-notice regulations, curtailing development until they can ensure the environmental impact is understood and mitigated.

At the same time, we are witnessing new developments and positive progress within regional and international bodies. Within the European Union (EU), for instance, this is reflected by its aim to have carbon-neutral data centers by 2030 (European Commission, 2021a), its ambitious European Green Deal and digital strategies, as well as its revised energy efficiency directive (EED), which seeks to implement a new set of measures for the industry called “data center sustainability indicators” (European Commission, 2021b). Meanwhile, the United Nations is working on frameworks to advance digital infrastructure in developing countries to close the digital divide – combining the development of fiber-optic infrastructure, data centers, and renewable energy as a unified system to increase the digital capabilities of a country, as highlighted by the UN Environment Programmes’ Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES) initiative (UNEP, 2021), which itself is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All of these examples demonstrate the importance of digital infrastructure and the demand to ensure it is sustainable – from an environmental, societal, and economic perspective.

In the examples of Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Dublin, regulation is beginning to hinder data center expansion. Together with the new EU directives as well, pressure on operations is increasing. In response, the industry introduced the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact as its countermeasure, vowing to self-regulate and ensure operational efficiency as well as limit the environmental impact of data centers. Both the EU as well as various European countries are expecting the European data center market to be carbon neutral by 2030 – a full 20 years before Europe in general aims to achieve climate neutrality – but neither a definitive plan nor a reporting system or metrics have been defined yet. The goal is ambitious, yet unreachable if there is no clear way to measure and take action for data centers, researchers, and governments alike.

In the end, regulation and setting ambitious goals alone will not be enough. With more products and services being digitized and the implementation of new technologies such as the Internet of things (IoT), 5G, and smart cities well underway, the energy and especially resource consumption of digital infrastructure is continuing to rise despite ambitious energy efficiency improvements by the industry (Hintemann, 2020). Current research has shown that even for modern data centers, power usage effectiveness (PUE) is beginning to plateau (Bashroush and Lawrence, 2020), and Moore’s Law continues to slow (Eeckhout, 2017). This means that present data center operators face new challenges to finding other strategies for increasing efficiency and reducing their environmental impact beyond green power purchasing and improved cooling systems. Instead, the industry needs a paradigm shift from optimizing the individual facility toward a systems-based approach, considering all parts of the value chain in the optimization strategy.

To keep growing, data center operators have to prove to the authorities and the public that rapid growth and sustainable operations can go hand-in-hand. We see government regulation increasing, but it is unlikely to lead to useful guardrails for the industry. Increasing limitations and developing more guidelines consistently prove to be insufficient since the industry, as well as its energy and resource consumption, are continuously growing (e.g., Bashroush et al., 2020). In turn, what is badly needed are innovations and implementable solutions based on reliable facts and data to move the digital economy and its infrastructure toward environmental sustainability, which itself is increasingly requested by customers. Fortunately, adopting sustainability practices decreases costs while making businesses more competitive (DeWeerdt, 2021), further reinforcing the fact that sustainability is good for people, profit, and the planet.

Open data helps to drive transparency and novel solutions

Through the widespread adoption of the Internet and digital technology, it has become possible to publicly share information in the form of open data. This has changed both the research & development (R&D) and innovation sectors. Instead of instructing internal R&D departments to devise novel solutions, companies can now leverage external knowledge and human capital for free and with minimum risk by utilizing open data. By embracing open data, an industry can pick from a much more diverse set of solutions and, consequently, increase the probability of developing disruptive innovations (Terwiesch & Xu, 2008). Such solutions are something that the actors within the digital infrastructure sector will need to significantly reduce its environmental impact.

Turning to a relevant example from another sector, the transportation industry has already embraced the collection and publication of open data to support the search for novel solutions. Freight transport alone accounted for 15% of all human emissions in 2010, which is expected to reach 12 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e) by 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario (McKinnon 2018, p.9). In response, Alan McKinnon, one of the leading researchers in sustainable logistics, has stressed that due to the high complexity of the value chain, the transportation industry will need to rely on collaboration to reduce its environmental impact (2018, pp.54-56).

Based on this insight, the sector has introduced myriad initiatives based on open data about traffic and transportation routes. One of these initiatives includes “Transport for London,” a collection of publicly available data sets by the UK GovLab on transportation data in Europe’s largest city (Hogge, 2016). The platform, which mostly contains data sets based on real-time data, has led to a total number of 362 innovations within transport services and traffic management while reaching more than 4 million people.

Not only do commercial projects benefit from open data in logistics, but also academia and governments can make use of it, creating a better environment for the industry that reported this data. The research team of Chen (2016) has used online open data to predict traffic congestion patterns, while Martins-Turner et al. (2020) have used an open-source transport simulation (MATSim) software to investigate whether electric trucks can be sustained in a practical environment. Elsewhere, Sierpiński (2017) developed a freight planning system based on open data from the application OpenStreetMap. On the governmental side, the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure has initiated an EU-wide dialogue between government, public authorities, industry, and research institutes, investigating which innovations can already be implemented in EU member states based on open mobility data and how multimodal transport can be further exploited (BMVI, 2020).

These academic, governmental, and economic initiatives demonstrate how open data creates a closed loop of benefits. Research and innovation benefit from reliable and accessible data, while in return, data providers receive valuable information and solutions to their main challenges without spending any resources on finding the solution themselves.

The similarities are striking to digital infrastructure – a complex value chain, with many actors, suppliers, businesses, varying, and often conflicting, commercial interests, and government policy and regulation aimed at reducing its environmental impact.

By embracing transparency and creating open data, digital infrastructure actors – from data centers and fiber networks to hardware manufacturers and software developers – can enable better collaboration among each other, enable researchers to find innovative solutions to systemic challenges, and ensure that governments understand challenges, the improvements made, and foster trust in actors delivering progress to reduce digital infrastructure’s environmental impact.

The time to implement transparency as your sustainability strategy is now. Businesses and organizations embracing radical transparency will shape the future of the industry and lead the way by catalyzing future innovation with their operational data.

Bringing transparency strategy to life

Implementing a transparency strategy requires five coherent actions:

Setting up the measurement infrastructure

Measurement tools should be implemented into the facility if not already existing. Mostly, data collection is already being done by internal management systems (such as Building Management System (BMS), Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM), Property Management System (PMS), or similar systems); however, some data may have to be consolidated or added manually.

Choosing what to report

Usually, a facility wants to report on its core operational parameters such as power consumption. To create a valuable data set for impactful innovation, however, the collection of metrics should be as comprehensive as possible. The SDIA’s Roadmap to Sustainable Digital Infrastructure by 2030 has introduced a set of six metrics that should be reported by all actors across the digital infrastructure to take a systems-based approach to environmental and economic sustainability.

Validation of integrity

To ensure the data that is collected across the various systems and platforms is correct, a trusted and independent third-party should review and audit the data. This should be done in conjunction with publicizing the data and making it open (see the next action).

Publicizing measurements and data

Releasing the data should happen in a continuous manner, to ensure access to data sets that are measured in near real-time and to give realistic and accurate information on the environmental performance of individual facilities and actors.

Working with the industry to create a hub for open data, a transparency certification, and government acceptance

Aggregating the data into a unified place, anonymizing it to protect business-critical information, making it available to researchers and governments, and delivering industry reporting requires collaboration across all industry actors to create a hub for open data.

In response, SDIA is fostering this collaboration and accelerating its development via our Open Data Hub.

Furthermore, to create an incentive and competitive advantage for actors who are contributing open data to the hub, a Transparency Certification can be developed by the industry. The SDIA and its Open Data Hub Steering Group are planning to develop such a label.

Lastly, governmental actors, such as local, regional, national, and international governments, should acknowledge the Open Data Hub, support its development, and accept it as an effort of the industry to create greater transparency on the environmental impact of the digital economy. Informing governments should be done in liaison with industry associations as well as SDIA as the catalyst for a sustainable digital economy.



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