How can Canada green its data centres?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to a carbon-free economy by 2100 along with the rest of the G7 – but there are caveats. It would require a “serious technological transformation,” he warned, calling it an “aspirational target.”

In the absence of any firm policy change, it’s up to technology to save the day. Tech certainly has the capability to make a difference. IT could be used to make companies run more efficiently, in areas such as smart fleet management, for example. And cleantech carries sustainability promises beyond even that.

Before we start looking at these measures as a means of saving Canada’s environment, though, we should ask the question: how sustainable is Canada’s existing technology?

Data centres are a big part of our technology usage, especially with the move to cloud computing. These computing facilities consumed between 1.7% and 2.2% of electricity generated in the US in 2010 – and that represented a 35% increase in energy usage from 2005. The EPA predicts a 9% annual increase in energy usage through 2020. In Canada, the data centre industry uses a smaller proportion of power, according to Natural Resources Canada, at just 1%.

Making data centres more environmentally friendly has been a priority in the tech industry for some years. Consolidating them is one way to go about it, and the government is doing its bit, consolidating its data centres under the Shared Services Canada programme. Its goal calls for the consolidation of 485 federal data centres into seven, resulting in a reduction from 600,000 square feet to 180,000, and reducing the server count from 23,434 to 14,369.

Consolidation is one way to make a computing operation more efficient, but energy efficiency is the other. Canada has few regulations enforcing the operation of energy-efficient data centres at present, though.

The federal government does have a standard for benchmarking building efficiency overall. National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings 2011 defines energy efficiency standards for the construction of commercial buildings in Canada, and dictates the efficiency of systems such as heating, air conditioning, and ventilation (HVAC). It also has some minimum energy performance standards for electrical equipment, but these don’t apply to IT equipment as used in data centres.

For real hardline regulation on data centre efficiency, we must look further south. The leader here is the state of California, which has introduced mandatory use of air-side or water-side economizers that take advantage of free-air cooling. This technology uses outside air to help cool the environment inside the data centre.

In Canada, which has a cooler climate, free-air cooling could be a big boost to data centre efficiency. BC had been considering a data centre efficiency mandate at one time, although little seems to have come of this.

How can companies improve the energy efficiency of their IT, and go some way towards lowering the carbon emissions caused by their CPU usage?

Virtualising servers is one approach. Data centres aren’t the only things that can be consolidated, and reducing the number of physical boxes that are running can help to reduce energy consumption.

Upgrading cooling strategies can reduce the energy draw on a data centre. Cooling can often account for a third or more of energy usage in a computing facility.

Finally, low-hanging fruit such as the use of hot and cold aisles to help direct cooling to where it is most appropriate can have a big effect on data centre efficiency.

Technology can definitely help us to get to a greener future – but before companies begin looking at how IT can be used to enhance the sustainability of everyday operations, enhancing the sustainability of the internal computing operation would be a good place to start.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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