March 4, 2024

Can we make the Internet consume less energy?

  • By Michael Dempsey
  • Business technology reporter

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There is no internet without data centers

Much of what we do every day involves a data center. Shopping online, streaming TV shows, reading this story – they all need data to be stored and readily available.

The immediacy and convenience of those services is great, but it comes at a cost.

Data centers require enormous amounts of electricity to keep them running: a large facility will consume as much electricity as a medium-sized city.

The situation is particularly serious in Ireland, where a relatively small power grid hosts an increasing number of data centres.

More than 20 of them are in Dublin, where Microsoft and Amazon have built very large sites.

That alarming demand for electricity has forced the Irish government to take action.

Sustainability is now a precondition for the approval of new data centers with the government stating that “newly built data centers must be able to flexibly reduce energy consumption.”

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Ireland is a major hub for Amazon, Microsoft and other tech giants

Technology is being deployed in hopes of making data centers less of a burden on the power grid.

A new facility, inaugurated in Grange Castle, on the outskirts of Dublin, has its connection to the electricity grid managed by software from the company Eaton in collaboration with the energy giant Enel.

If the overall power grid is under stress, electricity to the data center is cut off and backup systems are activated immediately.

All data centers operate sophisticated backup systems that keep them running in the event of any power outage.

The first line of this defense is uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices. These are actually sophisticated batteries that activate in just the fraction of a second they are needed and run long enough to allow a diesel generator to kick in or the power grid to be restored.

At Grange Castle, Eaton’s UPS intervenes and releases power into the grid when the grid’s electrical frequency, measured in hertz, fluctuates in a way that indicates it is under stress.

This could happen when power from unstable sources, such as Ireland’s vast wind farms, declines.

Many data centers already remove demand from the network for a predefined period using established technology from companies such as Schneider Electric and Vertiv.

But the Grange Castle deal is claimed to be the first time a live, dynamic relationship has been established between a data center and a national network.

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Ciaran Forde says his company’s system can help relieve pressure on the electricity grid

Eaton’s Ciaran Forde is a data center physicist. He says Eaton’s system acts as a pressure valve that disconnects the data center from the network for valuable interludes.

Data center owners charge for this flexibility from the Irish network operator.

Jay Dietrich of the Uptime Institute, which certifies the resiliency and reliability of data centers, says revenue is probably the main reason data center owners want to be flexible.

“They’re not doing it for noble reasons. They’re doing it for cash flow and revenue,” says Dietrich, whose career has involved working on energy policy and climate change at IBM.

Ireland offers a snapshot of a global problem.

In July 2022, London’s governing body, the Greater London Authority, wrote to property developers in the west of the capital warning them they could face long waits before new developments could be connected to the grid.

Despite a housing shortage across London, new residential projects could face a decade-long delay because data centers in the Thames Valley were absorbing electrical capacity, leaving the belt unable to guarantee power for London’s growing population. .

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Data centers host thousands of servers – devices that receive, store and send data.

How do we get here? Eaton’s Forde says it’s actually due to the explosive growth of cloud computing, the trend that has seen companies outsource much of their data storage and processing to third-party companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

He points out that using the term “cloud” is very misleading, since it is “a very physical thing.”

The cloud does not float in the atmosphere, it is made up of computer servers with a huge appetite for electricity.

The Irish example highlights how a combination of environmental concerns and concerns about network capacity have triggered a race to save the reputation of the data center industry.

New technological solutions are being developed.

In Brunello, a town near the Swiss border in northern Italy, data management company Pure Storage is putting a data center on a digital diet by trimming bits and bytes and discarding excess information.

Brunello storage devices use software that detects when information is being unnecessarily duplicated and removes that material. This process of perpetual review and deletion slows down growing volumes of data.

It sounds like a mundane job for the IT department, but this program is attacking the data center industry’s biggest enemy head on. It is reducing the terrible appetite for electrical power that characterizes all data centers. Pure claims it can reduce a data center’s energy consumption by up to 80%.

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Data center companies focus on reducing electricity consumption, says Pure’s James Petter

Pure executive James Petter, who came to technology via the British army and Coca-Cola, addresses the problem of energy consumption head-on and has no illusions about its importance.

“We design our equipment around the principle of reducing energy use. And right now all the requests we receive from potential data center customers are about energy consumption.

“They used to ask about technology and price first, but today what counts is carbon emissions and renewable energy. It’s about the carbon footprint, everyone jumps on the bandwagon.”

He says this trend has taken off in the past two years as energy consumption has risen to dominate “the CEO agenda.” Speaking from Riyadh, he describes how the last three data center providers he spoke to in Saudi Arabia were deeply concerned about their carbon footprint.

Petter is reluctant to admit that there might be a limit to how much data we can store. “The macro trend is for data to increase. I think innovation will continue and there will be new ways to store data.”

It is not in the technology industry’s commercial interest to impose limits on the number of photographs we all store in the cloud.

But if data centers want to gain planning permission and maintain public approval, they will have to focus on imaginative measures that reduce their huge energy consumption.

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