According to a 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, data centres and the networks that support the internet and cloud computing consumed around 2.6% of the world’s total electricity in 2020. The report estimates that this figure could reach up to 5.3% by 2030 if the current trends continue. Studies from other organisations such as Greenpeace suggest this could even be as high as 7%. Datacentres and IT systems are rapidly becoming one of the world’s biggest consumers of energy and also raw materials.
It’s important to note that energy consumption is not the same as carbon emissions. We see statements in the press that the IT industry generates as much carbon as the airline industry, it may be true, but airlines can’t run on solar/wind/green electricity (yet), IT infrastructure can. The carbon impact of your IT operations and datacentres very much depend on the source of the electricity. If the electricity comes from renewable sources, the carbon footprint will be much lower than if it comes from fossil fuels.
Many Managed Service Providers (MSPs) and Cloud providers are investing billions on utilising renewable energy and maximising the efficiency of their purpose-built facilities. They are having to, they are being driven through legalisation and also necessity, power grids can no longer support our massive, ever increasing thirst for energy.
Energy consumption in the IT sector has recently been brought into sharp focus following the energy crisis across Europe. In the UK we saw the UK wholesale electricity prices rise almost tenfold. As a major consumer of energy IT systems are now firmly under the spotlight for their impact on achieving organisational NetZero targets.
As sustainability becomes increasingly important across all organisations, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has set ambitious NetZero goals. As a business leaders as well as consumers we all have an addiction to apps; our personal devices and the data all this generates, they all require vast amounts of compute, storage and networking to facilitate. As IT professionals, we also must recognise the significant environmental impact of our circular IT economy, equipment typically has a 3-5-year lifecycle and is then replaced. Motherboards and components that make up our IT systems contain vast amounts of precious metals that are difficult to extract and reuse. Today its estimated that only around 7% of raw materials make it back into the economy after their first use!
Many of us have seen equipment prices increase but most IT teams have been shielded from how much energy costs have increased “facilities teams take care of that”. However, we must recognise that IT has a pivotal role to play in reducing the demand for energy and also NetZero commitments. We all have to work together and change our behaviours and approach to IT platforms starting with how we select suppliers and purchase equipment, through to operational costs, and how we responsibly dispose of kit when it reached end of life. This article delves into the critical factors to consider when addressing sustainability in NHS IT systems.
The Datacentre: The Impact Datacentre Inefficiency
Datacentre efficiency is measured by the ratio of power consumed to operate the equipment vs facility power. In many cases this can be a x2 ratio – it takes twice the power to keep the equipment cooled and operating as the power needed to run the equipment.
Purpose-built, modern data centres are energy-efficient by design, they can use a combination of outside air cooling when temperatures allow and will have hot/cold isle containment and other such innovations to operate as optimally as possible. However, we see in the NHS many datacentres are areas of repurposed building space that have been converted into datacentre environments. Consequently they do not have high efficiency ratings, consuming large amounts of energy with high cooling costs through poor design often to blame. This contributes to significant energy waste and pushes us all further away from achieving NetZero goals.
This issue is only going to get worse, as global temperatures increase the cooling needs of datacentres increases along with the associated power needs. Addressing this issue requires focused efforts to improve infrastructure, optimise cooling mechanisms and adopt energy-efficient technologies. It requires IT teams to be aware of the energy needs of equipment and work alongside facilities teams to design and operate facilities as optimally as possible.
In the NHS it may not be possible to move a production datacentre, but datacentres that hold backups or DR copies of applications and data should be a prime focus. They are more likely to be in older inefficient facilities, make these your first target, the low-hanging fruit, move them to a specialised facility or a managed service provider. Remember to measure where you are at first and be able to demonstrate savings.
Reducing Waste: Operating Older Systems vs. Manufacturing New
The costs of operating older, energy-hungry systems can be substantial. However, it is equally essential to consider the environmental impact of manufacturing new systems.
Manufacturers have now stated to publish information to make this decision-making process simpler. As a comparison a laptop typically has a 3 year lifespan, it runs 7 hours a day and although in the NHS there are tens of thousands of them, they consume very little energy to operate, most of its environmental impact is in its manufacture and the raw materials. A server however, runs 24x7x365 and consumes vast amounts of energy. So, using less servers, or more efficient servers will result in the greatest savings, compared to laptops where extending their usable life and ensuring they are responsibly recycled will have the biggest impact.
Compute: The most efficient server is the one that you do not use!
NHS budget cycles for IT equipment often drive the wrong behaviour. As an IT leader you are forced to predict the future, large equipment refreshes only come round so often which commonly leads to you over-specifying infrastructure to allow for future growth, and ensure you have capacity for the as-yet unknown applications. You are set an impossible task!
Conducting an optimisation assessment of the current estate, or before embarking on a technology refresh is essential. You need a true picture of what resources are currently being consumed, to reduce energy use and associate datacentre costs you need to review this information and consolidate workloads, reduce the number of servers. This is another quick win for many, make an immediate dent on reducing the environmental impact. It is not uncommon to see a >20% reduction in compute power needed which directly reduces your energy needs by the same percentage.
The Cloud and NHS Cloud-First Strategy
The NHS has a stated cloud-first strategy that filters through to all areas of the organisation. Cloud is one answer to helping with sustainability goals but it’s equally as important to optimise the existing infrastructure to avoid merely shifting the problem elsewhere. Over provisioned CPU and memory are even more wasteful in a cloud environment as not only are you increasing your carbon footprint but also you are paying a premium for the privilege.
Workspace: Virtual Desktops and Asset Reuse
As the end of life for Windows 10 fast approaches, many IT teams are assessing if the old hardware is compatible and the looking at the cost of replacing vast estates of desktops and laptops. There is an opportunity to question if hardware replacement is needed, could you implement a well-architected virtual desktop solution as an alternative? This approach enables the reuse of older assets while extending their lifespan. Using virtual desktops has many benefits but in the context of sustainability it can reduce the need for new equipment, reduce the need for the manufacture and associated RAW materials.
This of course may not be practical, devices do need replacement at some point, when this happens choosing a supplier that minimises packaging for new hardware, only uses recyclable materials and takes back older devices for recycling should be considered a must. Several manufactures are now offering Device-as-a-Service ensuring devices are refreshed but all components are carefully graded, reused, or recycled.
Data: Understanding your Data, Storage Efficiency and Assessments
A significant challenge lies in the vast amount of unused data that is stored, replicated, and backed up, all of which occupies excessive storage capacity. Storage is often THE major power consumer in datacentre and contributes significantly to the overall energy consumption.
As an IT professional your role is to provide the IT services and capacity to operate and store information to power the NHS, however you are not responsible for what gets stored on there. The task of understanding this data, its level of sensitivity or criticality is a difficult one and often in the “too difficult” pile.
We have been working with a number of NHS trusts to do exactly this, we are helping them to carry out detailed storage assessments and proactively identifying what type of information is being stored, tagging it so the appropriate levels of resilience and protection can be applied, as well as helping reduce what is being stored. It’s too easy to overlook the environmental impact of storing vast quantities of unused or redundant data. Implementing an effective data management strategy and clean-up initiatives, followed by policies to control future growth we can significantly reduce storage requirements, as well as the often-forgotten impact it has on replication and backup data.
Vendor selection is also key, innovation in the storage market has led to technologies such as deduplication, compression, space-efficient snapshots and clones all of which reduce the physical hardware required. However, the biggest change to storage power efficiency has been the emergence of energy-efficient, high-capacity Flash storage technology which uses a fraction of the power and requires less cooling. Historically these technologies have always attracted a premium price and only suitable for high performance workloads, however with the advent of QLC drives, coupled with deduplication and compression they are now able to compete £/TB with traditional high capacity hard disks. If you have a large estate of high capacity, energy hungry storage, you have scope for substantial cost savings from energy reduction across your estate.
Managed Service Providers: How can they help?
Managed service providers (MSPs) can also play a vital role. They enable your IT staff to focus on business applications taking care of the day-to-day operating of the platform to a team of experts focused on running highly efficient infrastructure operations.
As discussed earlier, IT budget holders are set an impossible task, with large infrastructure budgets set for 3 or 5 years. Predicting what compute, networking or storage capacity may be needed for this period nearly always results in either over-buying or having to justify additional unplanned expenditure midway through this period.
By far the most efficient way to purchase these types of assets is as a service – Buy what you need when you need it. This just-in-time approach ensures you are always running an optimal infrastructure, not consuming vast amounts of energy for equipment that’s not being used. The other impact is this changes peoples attitude to the platforms and services IT provides, if you have huge quantities of unused storage its difficult to say no to a department needing more capacity. However, if that same department has to justify the use and subsequent spend it ensures they consider the cost and the carbon impact as part of their justification.
By sharing assets and consolidating equipment, MSPs help reduce the overall energy and carbon costs associated with managing complex IT environments. If using an MSP for production services isn’t an option, then question do you need to operate a second datacentre that holds backups or DR copies of your critical systems? Is this an effective use of resources? MSPs can provide these services, using secure but shared resources lowering your carbon density to provide the same (sometimes better) level of service.
Sustainability in the NHS extends beyond more efficient real-estate, reducing waste and improving clinical practices. IT infrastructure is often overlooked in sustainability strategies it’s no doubt a major contributor to the overall energy use and subsequent carbon impact. Everything we do in the NHS is for the betterment of the patient, IT is such a keystone in providing critical services across every team and department. As IT professionals, we have a crucial role to play in minimising the environmental impact of datacentres and supporting IT infrastructure.
Data is invisible, it’s easy to overlook, but we need to focus on reducing waste just as we would if it was something physical that we can touch and feel. By considering factors such as utilisation of our systems, reviewing storage efficiency, further consolidation of systems, and smart purchasing practices IT can make a big difference. Procurement practices need careful consideration, it’s not right to make purchases in areas such as IT with a 5-year view, the adoption of as-a-service, buy what you need when you need it, utilising MSPs or Cloud technologies will all help achieve the NetZero goals. Sustainability needs to be a major consideration as part of supplier and technology choices.
There is also some positive news, although IT has been a major contributor to climate change the IT industry also holds many of the answers and is leading the way to clean up its act.
• We can switch to green energy relatively easily.
• Technology innovation means we need to buy less.
• Recycling is making massive leaps forwards, improving our ability to reuse components.
• Modern equipment doesn’t need to be kept so cold, allowing datacentres to reduce their cooling.
Now is the time to make a difference, we need to make it part of the culture within our teams, everyone has a part to play. Supplier and technology choice is more important than ever. 5 years ago, much of the technology wasn’t quite there, it wasn’t as affordable. 5 years in the future will be too late.
“We are the first generation to feel the impact of Climate Change, and the last generation that can do something about it!” Barak Obama COP21