First Rule of IT Sustainability: Scale Up, Not Out

Software-defined infrastructure innovations and IT ecosystem developments are key to successful IT sustainability strategies.

By Joanie Wexler

By Joanie Wexler May 23, 2024

As enterprises develop and fine-tune their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, they’re realizing that their data centers hold huge potential for emissions reduction. By some estimates, data centers account for 4% of electricity consumption and 1% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide.

The motives behind ESG programs range from growing profits – a reported 89% of institutional investors now consider sustainability in their investment decisions – to lowering energy bills, boosting business continuity, minimizing risk, and saving the planet.

Much can be done now to improve IT sustainability, according to experts featured in the Tech Barometer podcast segment: Experts Discuss Top IT Sustainability Challenges. They added extending the life of power-hungry hardware and standardizing ways to granularly measure energy usage and emissions, need resolving to optimize IT ESG efforts. 


Experts Discuss Top IT Sustainability Challenges

Strategies are moving from theory to practice, according to trends reported in the 2023 and 2024 Enterprise Cloud Index. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents now say sustainability is a priority for their organization and many are already implementing sustainability initiatives. Over the past year, many organizations focused on being more data-driven in terms of their approach to sustainability: 

  • 51% of organizations say they improved their ability to identify areas for reducing waste 
  • 44% indicate they improved their ability to monitor and measure greenhouse gas emissions as well as their carbon footprint

The 2024 ECI Report stated, “It is essential that organizations develop these baseline metrics to measure the improvement of sustainability initiatives over time and set realistic goals that can be achieved over time.”

In the Tech Barometer podcast, experts dove deeper into key area of development.

First Step: IT Consolidation

At .NEXT, a four-person expert panel spoke on IT sustainability and cost optimization, urging companies to embark on their sustainability journeys by consolidating resources to the degree possible. They advocated modern infrastructures that virtualize previously independent hardware servers and appliances in software, which they said typically yields about an 80% emissions reduction.

Software-defined infrastructures enable a single piece of hardware to host multiple virtual machines (VMs), allowing companies to scale their infrastructures up rather than out. Scaling up, panelists explained, adds capabilities to existing hardware or “builds vertically,” rather than adding hardware infrastructure that requires more real estate, power, and cooling resources (“building horizontally”).

“Scaling up consumes less energy,” said Harmail Chatha, senior director of global cloud operations at Nutanix. Chatha oversaw Nutanix’s internal data center strategy revamp in 2018, which he said optimized the IT function for this type of vertical growth. The result, he said, was a 68% reduction in OpEx and CapEx by “ensuring that all of the power and space was utilized, with 92 nodes running in a single rack.”


Data Center Decisions Draw on Sustainability Strategies

He said the strategy was a departure from overprovisioning compute, storage, and networking hardware as insurance that those IT resources would always be available, even during periods of unexpected growth or short-term spurts of utilization.

“IT initiatives now have to be about optimization rather than playing it safe by over-buying hardware, inherently the go-to model,” said Chatha. “We all need to shift to optimizing within the stack rather than continually building out horizontally at the hardware tier.”

Panelist Steve McDowell, chief analyst and founder at NAND Research, agreed. 

“We’re going to continue to need this [hardware] technology; we just need to use less of it,” said McDowell. “And the way to do that is to optimize its usage. With cloud [computing], for example, I'm sharing a CPU among X number of instances, optimizing and consolidating my workloads. That's a sustainability play.”

The Hardware Conundrum

Software innovation can also significantly reduce emissions by prolonging the life of hardware and making existing hardware faster and more efficient, according to panelist Steen Dalgas, a senior cloud economist at Nutanix in the U.K.

He said, though, there’s work to be done on this score. “[Chipmakers] tend to have a strict end of life [for their processors], which is about five years,” he said. “All the innovation should come from the software layer, which also improves hardware performance. That’s more sustainable by design,” Dalgas said.


Three Trends Defining IT Sustainability in 2024

He pointed out, for example, that “hardware comes with embedded emissions from manufacturing, assembly, and shipping. The assembly can be in a different country. So you're shipping to two different countries. But then, if you have a traditional three-tier data center architecture…the server is made in one country, the storage and networking equipment possibly in others. Then they all have to be assembled. So you've got this big surface of emissions every time you refresh.”

This is why Dalgas said he believes that “the future is that hardware life will be extended. While the hardware vendors don't really want to hear that, I think that's where the industry should be going.”

You Can’t Improve What You Can’t Measure

The panelists agreed that one IT sustainability obstacle is the lack of standardized models for measuring energy consumption and emissions down to server and VM levels.

“We might know what’s happening at an overall data center level, but not within it, not at each rack,” said Dalgas. “So, that’s an immediate problem to solve. With more granular detail about the energy I'm running, I can start to make improvements.”

He also pointed to a general lack of understanding of key factors that drive data center carbon emissions.

“A hyperscaler might be saying that all the energy you use in its cloud is renewable. But you can't actually use renewable grid factors if you can't prove that those renewables are going directly to your specific server. So you have to create evidence to link them; otherwise, you have to use the power grid emissions factors [kilograms of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour] for either the state or the country you're operating in.”


Building Scalable, Sustainable Data Centers

Where you locate your infrastructure, then, impacts ESG because it’s subject to the grid factors of that location, explained Dalgas. 

“Poland, for example, runs off mainly coal and has the worst grid factors in Europe,” he said. “Putting your data center there can penalize you by a factor of 10.”

Chatha added that Nutanix started measuring its energy consumption using Google Sheets and worked with partners to calculate the resulting emissions. But eventually, the team felt like it was spending too much time on manual calculations and began working with nZero, a company with a carbon management platform that gathers real-time power consumption data at the server and grid levels.

“You can see the cost per kilowatt hour of each data center and make smarter decisions,” Chatha said. “Next we’d like to see usage at the VM level.”

Cooling and Climate Challenges

Chris Kanaracus, research director in the cloud infrastructure group at IDC, estimates that 20% to 25% of data center energy is used for cooling. 

“So while we're driving consolidation with intelligent software, we also need to solve the cooling problem,” he said. 

“Around the world, we're experiencing extreme drought, and groundwater is at an all-time low,” added Dalgas. “And if we've created a data center design system that's based around water cooling, then we're not in a good place.”


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The panelists agreed that some organizations, particularly in Europe and Scandinavia, are ahead of the pack in using natural resources to cool their data centers.

“They tend to have innovative solutions like water reclamation and are offering renewable energy options,” said Chatha. “I feel like the U.S. market just hasn't caught up other than a couple of top-tier providers, and I don’t think Asia-Pac is there.”

He added that while hardware and software innovators can continue to push the envelope, “data center companies have to keep up. Some legacy data centers don't have enough power or cooling to support vertical growth in the rack. So then you're stuck at single-digit KVAs per rack.”

Related is that climate risks are now becoming a business resilience issue, Dalgas said. In the U.K., data centers have been traditionally designed to run within a certain temperature range based on standardized climate models – models that can no longer be counted on, he said.

He noted that in June, the U.K.  had a 42°C/104°F day, which caused outages in data centers operated by Google, Oracle Cloud, a large London hospital, a challenger bank, and others. In the case of the hospital, which was running an older, hardware-intensive three-tier data center, the loss of its production and disaster recovery centers forced the provider to operate on paper records for two months.

“The more infrastructure you have,” Dalgas said, “the bigger your physical footprint, the more cooling you need, and the greater your susceptibility to failures.”

Why Waiting Can Be Risky

Some projections indicate that data center electricity use will increase about fifteen-fold by 2030 to 8% of global demand. When you combine that with climate volatility, variable power grid factors, energy shortages, and inflated power costs in some geographies, “the longer you wait to do something about it, the bigger the risk you're running,” said Dalgas.

Chatha pointed out, however, that sustainability is more a journey than a single act. “You don't just one day wake up and say, ‘I'm sustainable.’ For [Nutanix], it was a tremendous effort just to understand what to measure, and we took it one step at a time.”

Sustainability is a team sport across the IT ecosystem, according to Dalgas. “Nutanix doesn’t have all the answers. The data center companies don’t have all the answers.  It's all about how you can leverage the best team, with each player putting their best foot forward.”

Joanie Wexler is a contributing writer and editor with more than 25 years of experience covering the business implications of IT and computer networking technologies.

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