As data proliferates, data centers are a prime target for sustainability efforts

Within the last year, President Biden signed an executive order designed to establish the federal government as a leader in sustainability, vowing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across government operations and invest in clean energy.

Ever since, federal agencies have been working toward zero-emission goals, with some administration officials saying that the effort to make the government more sustainable will rely in part on cooperation with the private sector.

Working with suppliers and other partners, the government can make strides, taking the next steps to reengineer data centers and data infrastructure to lower power and cooling use (and cost), reduce waste, and mitigate environmental impact.

Although sustainability seems to have grown in importance in recent years, the concept dates to 1969, when the National Environmental Policy Act became the first major law that committed the United States to sustainability. It declared a national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Today, in our increasingly high-tech world, it has become imperative to improve tech sustainability through energy-efficient and carbon-neutral solutions. The growth of data and data centers — which play a critical role in the development and delivery of products and services across industries — has accentuated the need for environmental progress.

According to the Department of Energy, data centers are “one of the most energy-intensive building types,” consuming up to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building.

By themselves, data centers account for about 2% of total U.S. electricity usage, according to the Department.

Elevating the energy performance of data centers in the march toward zero-carbon goals is especially important for federal agencies, because the federal government is the nation’s largest energy consumer. It maintains more than 350,000 buildings and operates about 600,000 vehicles, according to the Energy Department.

Demand for data centers is only expected to grow as the federal government continues to modernize legacy IT systems and embrace cloud computing. This trend presents an issue: growing energy consumption and emissions. It also presents an opportunity to reduce them.

Still, data centers are often optimized for reliability, performance or cost, and less for efficiency. As data workloads increase, data centers offer a prime target for improving efficiency with modular, upgradable technology that reduces energy consumption and mitigates environmental impact.

Recognizing the need for action, President Joe Biden’s executive order on Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability set a series of ambitious energy targets, including the reduction of U.S. net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

Agencies just starting sustainability efforts should undertake a materiality assessment to engage stakeholders and learn what environmental, social and governance issues are important to them in developing a sustainability strategy. It is a step many companies are taking.

Once they delve into specifics, federal leaders can work with partners to engineer data centers for smaller carbon footprints, updating software and hardware to avoid costly product replacements and the energy and e-waste that comes with it. Using flexible subscription services can help remove the waste often associated with under-utilized or over-provisioned systems.

Another forward-looking step is optimizing the supply chain, by consolidating documents and moving to recyclable packaging. A more efficient supply chain will enable a facility to handle surges in demand more easily, while ensuring environmentally sound practices.

Whatever approach a particular agency takes, the importance of the overall mission is clear. As sustainability and energy savings become increasingly vital to organizations worldwide, the federal government can think big, and take a variety of innovative steps to reduce data center emissions and protect our environment.

Mike Wiseman is vice president for public sector at Pure Storage.

 

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