Model challenges growth in data centre energy use

Model challenges growth in data centre energy use

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty

Researchers in the US have developed and released the most detailed model to date of global data centre energy use that challenges existing assumptions 

The team from Northwestern University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Koomey Analytics found that, although demand for data has increased rapidly, massive efficiency gains by data centres have kept energy use roughly flat over the past decade.

The detailed, comprehensive model provides a more nuanced view of data centre energy use and its drivers, enabling the researchers to make strategic policy recommendations for better managing this energy use. These recommendations include increasing research and development investments in next generation computing, storage and heat removal technologies.

“While the historical efficiency progress made by data centres is remarkable, our findings do not mean that the IT industry and policymakers can rest on their laurels,” said Eric Masanet, who led the study and is an adjunct professor in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and the Mellichamp Chair in Sustainability Science for Emerging Technologies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We think there is enough remaining efficiency potential to last several more years. But ever-growing demand for data means that everyone — including policy makers, data centre operators, equipment manufacturers and data consumers — must intensify efforts to avoid a possible sharp rise in energy use later this decade.”

The paper is published today in the journal Science.

“Considering that data centres are energy-intensive enterprises in a rapidly evolving industry, we do need to analyze them rigorously,” said co-author Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Less detailed analyses have predicted rapid growth in data centre energy use, but without fully considering the historical efficiency progress made by the industry. When we include that missing piece, a different picture of our digital lifestyles emerges.”

To paint that more complete picture, the researchers integrated new data from numerous sources, including information on data centre equipment stocks, efficiency trends, and market structure. The resulting model enables a detailed analysis of the energy used by servers, storage devices and cooling systems, by type of data centre such as cloud and hyperscale centres and by world region.

The researchers concluded that recent efficiency gains made by data centres have likely been far greater than those observed in other major sectors of the global economy.

“Lack of data has hampered our understanding of global data centre energy use trends for many years,” said coauthor Jonathan Koomey of Koomey Analytics. “Such knowledge gaps make business and policy planning incredibly difficult.”

Addressing these knowledge gaps was a major motivation for the research team’s work. “We wanted to give the data centre industry, policy makers and the public a more accurate view of data centre energy use,” said Masanet. “But the reality is that more efforts are needed to better monitor energy use moving forward, which is why we have made our model and datasets publicly available.”

By releasing the model, the team hopes to inspire more research into the topic. The researchers also translated their findings into three specific types of policies that can help mitigate future growth in energy use, urging policy makers to act:

  • Extend the life of current efficiency trends by strengthening IT energy standards such as ENERGY STAR, providing financial incentives and disseminating best energy efficiency practices;
  • Increase research and development investments in next generation computing, storage and heat removal technologies to mitigate future energy use, while incentivizing renewable energy procurement to mitigate carbon emissions in parallel
  • Invest in data collection, modeling and monitoring activities to eliminate blind spots and enable more robust data centre energy policy decisions. 

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