Cloud operators take aim at mounting energy demands

Energy experts warn sprawling data centres could exacerbate an already precarious energy situation around the world

Tags: Cloud computingEnergy efficiencyKhazna Data Centers (khazna.ae/)Microsoft CorporationeHosting DataFort
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Cloud operators take aim at mounting energy demands Nabih: “Our investments in sustainable cloud infrastructure is enabling organisations around the world reduce their own impact.”
By  David Ndichu Published  September 4, 2018

Increased digitisation and the era of IoT that’s just emerging will push the needs for cloud computing, and data centres, to the stratosphere. Energy experts predict data centres could be consuming an astonishing 20% of the world’s energy by 2025.

The energy situation is of course even direr in this region. It’s a fact that the level of primary energy consumption in the MENA region is one of the highest worldwide. The region-wide demand for digital services has resulted in a recent surge in cloud services providers setting up data centres in the region, with more to come. This development puts the region at the heart of the discussion on energy efficiency for data centre operations.     

Data centres have become the engine of transformation across every sector of the economy and powering those services necessarily results in high energy consumption. Microsoft is one of the largest operators of data centres across the globe and its efforts to conserve energy have global implications.  

Over the years, Microsoft’s energy efficiency efforts have coalesced into a true environmental sustainability strategy that helps reduce the company’s impact on the environment, says Hazem Nabih, intelligent cloud, business group director, Microsoft Middle East & Africa. “In addition, our investments in an efficient and sustainable cloud infrastructure is enabling organisations around the world reduce their own impact,” says Nabih.

Just recently, Microsoft sank a data centre off the Scottish coast, part of a research project to evaluate the feasibility of underwater datacentres powered by offshore renewable energy. Dubbed Project Natick, 854 servers in a shipping container-sized data centre are cooled by the cold waters found near the seafloor. Cooling is a major cost in any large-scale computing operation, so the ocean’s naturally low temperatures reduce the cost and energy needed to maintain the servers that connect other computers to the internet.

Recently, Microsoft also announced a partnership with McKinstry and Cummins to build the world’s first gas datacentre. In this pilot, racks are directly connected to natural gas pipes and fully powered by integrated fuel cells instead of traditional electrical gear. The Advanced Energy Lab is a 20-rack datacentre pilot located in Seattle. The facility simplified the energy supply chain by using fuel cells to power servers. With fewer pieces in the supply chain, there are far fewer points of failure, demonstrating the potential to nearly double the energy efficiency of data centres.

Nabih says Microsoft has also increased its purchase of renewable energy and reduction of waste and water use. “We are working through a portfolio of approaches, including purchasing renewable energy, searching for innovative new technology that enables low carbon energy to power our sites, and powering our datacentres directly from on-site renewable energy sources,” he adds.

Microsoft has committed to carbon neutrality for all internal operations across the more than 100 countries, its 100-plus datacentre locations, software development labs, offices, and air travel.

The company is now utilising an internal carbon fee that charges internal groups for each metric ton of carbon emissions associated with the operation of its data centres, software development labs, office buildings, and employee travel.

Free cooling

This green trend is also visible among locally grown cloud services providers. Khazna Data Centres is a case in point. 

Khazna prides itself as the only dedicated commercial wholesale data centre provider in the UAE and is one of the largest data centre infrastructure operators in the Middle East and North Africa region

Its data centres are designed to operate with high efficiency even in under the extreme weather conditions in the region, targeting a highly competitive Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of around 1.6 – 1.7 as opposed to 2.5 for traditional design of data centres, explains Hassan Al Naqbi, CEO of Khazna Data Centres.

The company has put in place a series of initiatives to reduce energy use. 

First, Khazna uses high temperature water to cool its data centres: A typical chiller water supply temperature would be 4-6C; Khazna designed and operates chillers with a water supply of 20C. This increases chillers efficiency and lowers losses and condensation in chilled water (CHW) pipe network and therefore lowers power consumption.

Khazna has also embraced free-cooling and pre-cooling methods, Naqbi observes. It uses free-cooling when outdoor temperatures fall below 12C°, only using cooling towers to cool data centres without the need for mechanical cooling (chillers) by simply circulating water in the towers. Pre-cooling, on the other hand, is used when outdoor temperatures fall between 12 C° and 20 C°, utilising cooling towers for pre-cooling which substantially reduces the load on the chillers system.

Khazna is also in the process of replacing conventional type light fittings with LED lighting equipped with motion detectors. Not only do these light systems consume less electricity, they also generate less heat, hence reducing the amount of energy needed for cooling. LED will ultimately lower power consumption used for lighting by 70%, Naqbi observes.

Solar PV panels are also being installed on the rooftop and car parking of Khazna data centres. The objective is to achieve stable generation to the grid with minimum operation and maintenance cost. “The generated electricity from the PV system will be first consumed by the data centres with any excess electricity fed to the grid, which will be credited for future consumption,” Naqbi says.

Khazna is also in the process of switching to using recycled water in its cooling infrastructure. Recycled water costs 50-60% less than the potable water, a figure that will only reduce in the future as potable water costs climb with each passing year, Naqbi observes. The rationale behind using recycled water is that this type of water does not need to be sterile to the high level required for potable water when it’s used for data centre cooling purposes. “To that end, Khazna has invested heavily in building a side stream treatment plant which will take in the recycled water and puts it through a process of sterilization, filtration and chlorination which cleans it for use in our cooling,” he adds. 

Additionally, Khazna wholesale data centre model encourages and rewards clients for being energy consumption conscious. Khazna bills energy consumption to clients based on actuals, hence being energy efficient translates to cost savings for clients. For example, 1MW IT load (smaller unit of sales in wholesale datacentre) would cost about AED 6Mio/yr (based on Dubai electricity rates & PUE of 1.6). Thus, even the smallest saving margin would be substantial to Khazna clients, Naqbi observes.

eHosting DataFort (eHDF) is one of the pioneers in Data Centre, Managed Hosting and Cloud Infrastructure Services in the Gulf region, operating since 2001. 

Yasser Zeineldin, eHDF CEO, says the company has been strategically implementing constant upgrades in its data centres with the aim of efficient energy management and power reduction.

2017 saw eHosting DataFort invest over AED 20 million in its data centre upgrades. Part of the investments were focused on cooling efficiencies with the latest available technology as well as concentrating on need-based cooling adjustments in any given area within the data centre, explains Zeineldin. Simultaneously, laying of overhead cable trays for data cables in two layers, one for copper and another for fibre optic ones, while the power cables are laid under a raised floor, has helped in energy efficiency. These initiatives were also supported by the re-alignment of the hot and cold aisles. “This has benefited in uniform and unhindered air flow which allows for higher energy efficiency,” he adds.

Power usage effectiveness

Power usage effectiveness (PUE) is the ratio that describes how efficiently a computer data centre uses energy; specifically, how much energy is used by the computing equipment (in contrast to cooling and other overhead).

In Europe, the average is around 1.3 to 1.6, due to generally cooler weather conditions, while in the Middle East it is around 2.0 to 2.2, as higher temperatures make free cooling usage relatively low.

Over the past 10 years, the PUE has generally decreased. In Microsoft’s latest datacentre designs, a PUE of 1.12-1.2, depending on physical location, representing a substantial energy reduction versus the industry average of 1.8. This takes Microsoft very close to the theoretically perfect PUE of 1.0.

Zeineldin says eHDF has strived to maintain a 1.8 PUE within its facilities. As aforementioned, Khazna is targeting a PUE of around 1.6 – 1.7 when all its efforts come to fruition.

Shifting customer attitudes towards more environmentally-friendly services are also pushing the industry towards greener offerings.    

Zeineldin says eHDF now provides optimal solutions like planned layouts, hot-cold aisle, etc. to customers requiring high-density power utilisation for colocation. “Their demands are much higher and therefore it is important for us to provide them with higher efficiencies and lowered power demand. This helps in reducing their financial implications,” he adds.

There’s a general shift towards increasing awareness on energy efficiency with active discussions taking place on consumption-based models, including among SMB customers, says Zeineldin. “And in anticipation of future needs, we are also gearing to face the expected demand where energy efficiency will play a vital role in the customer’s buying decision,” Zeineldin adds.

In addition, the sheer innovation in server equipment design, with an eye towards more energy efficient devices will have a substantial future impact on energy consumption.

Microsoft is in the pilot stage of a research project called in-rack fuel cell. The company’s engineers recognised that an ideal approach would be to integrate power generation in the rack itself, essentially collapsing the entire electricity supply chain without sacrificing reliability. “This concept eliminates nearly all of the traditional electrical infrastructure losses in standard datacentre designs, which can represent 1/3 - 1/2 of total data centre cost, in addition to eliminating all of the electrical losses from transmission and conversion that occur before reaching the datacentre itself,” Nabih explains.

Another major initiative in Microsoft’s datacentres involves designing its own server specifications that are optimised for a massive, hyper-scale cloud infrastructure environment. These specifications evolved into a new server design that significantly reduces power consumption and improves operations efficiency. The company also shared this design with the industry through its contributions to the Open Compute Project Foundation in 2014, says Nabih.

The very act of enterprises moving to the cloud and shared services presents a substantial proposition for businesses reducing their own carbon footprint. “We have been propagating the increased use of the cloud model of data storage and management where we can not only accommodate more customers and their needs but also provide them with energy efficient solutions in an environmentally-friendly system,” says eHDF’s Zeineldin.

The total cost of ownership of consuming digital services is influenced by energy consumption; therefore clients can lower their energy needs by selecting a more efficient facility, a decision that would move the investment requirements for energy efficiency CAPEX to the data centre service provider (Energy efficient data centres cost more to build).  “A typical whole data centre would be over 10MW capacity, thus annual bill for electricity is approximately AED 60Mio/yr. A PUE of 2 would mean that the facility will consume AED 75Mio/yr worth of power costs,” Naqbi observes.

Overall, energy efficient data centres will present lesser demand on the national grid and will contribute to a lower carbon footprint of IT infrastructure, Naqbi adds.

No one needs convincing that saving energy is a good thing. With global and regional cloud providers taking the lead, our digital future and energy efficiency should not be mutually exclusive. 

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