Sustainability goals drive data-center purchases

Liquid cooling, high efficiency equipment, and AI-enabled analytics are among the technologies driving more sustainable data-center operations.

A heart-shaped leaf lies on a circuit board. [Green IT / environmental impact / climate change]

Data center operators are weighing new approaches to thermal management as they deal with growing compute requirements and strive to achieve sustainability goals. They’re not alone in prioritizing sustainability: Enterprise IT buyers are increasingly looking for data centers with sustainability credentials and are making purchasing decisions based on the presence of practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s the crux of findings from research and advisory firm Omdia, which last week unveiled its Data Center Thermal Management and Sustainability Intelligence Service. The service is aimed at analyzing sustainable data-center best practices and strategies, with a focus on new technologies such as liquid cooling and energy storage systems.

Cooling, in particular, is a growing area of interest. Air-cooled equipment dominates data centers today, but liquid cooling solutions are gaining the attention of data-center operators that are grappling with new workload requirements and sustainability initiatives, according to Omdia. It predicts the data center thermal management market, which includes liquid cooling, will grow from $4 billion in 2020 to $7.7 billion by 2025.

Other new technologies that can be a game changer for sustainability goals include higher efficiency, smaller footprint equipment and AI-enabled analytics.

It’s all a part of the broader environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement – an approach to corporate accountability that divides opinions. To some, ESG is a way of making a company more socially and environmentally responsible for the business it does. To others, ESG represents pressure on companies to comply with rules and regulations that may not be in their best interest.

For now, ESG is an important checkbox item, and could potentially be a dealbreaker, says Moises Levy, PhD, senior principal analyst, data center physical infrastructure research, at Omdia.

“Cost and reliability are still the main barriers” [to sales], he told me. “That being said, we also have legislation and regulation coming that a lot of companies are being pushed to look into.” So future regulation may transform ESG from an option to mandatory.

Pressure to be more green-minded is coming from a variety of sources, including younger, more socially minded employees, Levy said. Some regions are pushing harder than others, especially Europe, he added.

The trend is also being driven by vendors such as Amazon, Google and Meta. “All of these companies are looking [at ESG] because they are in the pursuit of better long-term solutions. And also, they have the resources, and they can invest in this technology,” he said.

In truth, it’s not hard to find a green-minded data center provider, colo provider, or hardware vendor. After all, every dollar saved through energy efficiency goes right to the bottom line. So it’s in the best interests of the vendors to be energy-efficient in the first place, virtue signaling notwithstanding.

“I believe data-center stakeholders are taking great steps toward sustainability because this is a meaningful trend. But we should not forget the comprehensive view of the data center. It is not only about sustainability. They are also looking into efficiency, productivity, operations, and trying to understand how all these affect risk,” Levy said.

Customers care because they want to do better, and they want to be more environmentally responsible. There are also financial incentives. “Sustainability-linked loans to finance projects are also growing,” Levy said. That includes loans for data centers. “So maybe, if you are developing your data center to be more sustainable, you can access a lot of financing,” he said.

In the big picture, the technologies to support broad sustainability efforts need more maturity, Levy said. More research and cases studies are needed to prove that these technologies can work. There are still a lot of unknowns, he said.

“It's still in the early days, but we consider it the way to go. More innovation and collaborative efforts are much needed to achieve a sustainable future,” Levy said.

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