Green Data Centers: Designing a Sustainable IT Future

When it’s built and operated with sustainability in mind, the green data center can help the tech sector pivot from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.

By Jacob Gedetsis

By Jacob Gedetsis February 5, 2024

Instead of gas furnaces or fireplaces, residents in Stockholm, Sweden are staying warm with the help of excess heat from more than 6,000 computer servers.

It’s one of the many creative ways that green data centers around the world are trying to become more environmentally friendly.

The idea belongs to Swedish internet service provider Bahnhof, which has turned an old rock cavity below a public park into a cutting-edge green data center. Known as Pionen, the futuristic space is filled with densely packed IT hardware and infrastructure that produces a massive amount of energy and heat. 



Tackling Climate Change Challenges with Cloud Computing

When it established Pionen in 2007, Bahnhof wasted that heat by venting it away. Then, it decided to partner with local energy company Stockholm Exergi, whose Open District Heating program allows entities that produce excess heat to generate revenue by recovering surplus heat and selling it as energy with which to heat homes and businesses.

“We liked the overall impression of Open District Heating in terms of the financial, environmental and technological benefits it offers,” Bahnhof Chief Technology Officer Gustav Bergquist said in a case study published by Stockholm Exergi.

Bahnhof is not alone. DeepGreen is capturing 90% of the heat that its servers produce and are using it to provide free hot water to the local community. In particular, public swimming pools in Devon, England.

“Energy is expensive and precious,” said Mark Bjornsgarrd, the founder of DeepGreen. “So many organizations and communities struggle to afford the heat they need to exist. Yet so much energy, so much heat, is wasted everyday by data centers.” 

The benefits of green data centers are now more attractive than ever due to increased scrutiny by sustainability advocates, many of whom worry that humanity’s increased appetite for technology comes with an environmental cost.

Building More Sustainable Data Centers 

A green data center requires a multi-pronged approach that considers construction, clean energy consumption and green technology solutions. 

The rapid growth of cloud computing is driving data centers to consume approximately 2% of global electricity today, according to research by Huawei Technologies Sweden; that could rise to nearly 8% by 2030, it said. Meanwhile, a 2020 study by Ontario’s McMaster University found that the information and communications technology sector will account for nearly 14% of the world’s carbon footprint by 2040.


Building Scalable, Sustainable Data Centers

Facing increased pressure to reduce emissions and combat the adverse effects of climate change, ideas like Open District Heating might be able to help the communications and technology sector pivot from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. Because while it’s true that data centers have a massive environmental footprint, it’s also true that they can shrink it. When it’s built and operated with sustainability in mind, the green data center concept ceases to be a contradiction.

With sustainability at the forefront of data center growth and operations, providers are scrambling to retrofit existing facilities in order to maximize energy efficiency and build new facilities from scratch with the environment in mind.

When it comes to the latter, location is key. Because sprawling data centers require tons of power to keep their servers humming, and even more power to keep them cool, many tech companies are locating where renewable energy sources are plentiful to keep up with demands. Some companies, for example, are setting up shop in deserts where they can maximize solar power. Others are flocking to windy areas near the coast where wind power is plentiful.


Inside a Hyper-Dense Data Center

Switch, a data center and technology solutions company constructed two solar power stations in Las Vegas. By investing in renewable energy, the company claims to have eliminated 265,000 carbon tons of emission from the environment — the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road.

“Technology is an entire sector that’s built on innovation and newness’” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said in an interview with Harper's Bazaar. “That’s our problem. The solution to that problem can’t be, ‘Tech cannot exist, because we don’t think you’re good to the planet.”

“If it is, we are suffering from an incredible lack of imagination and innovation … and technology is known for innovation. So how can we take that strength and use it on behalf of the planet?”

Data Centers Plug Into Renewable Energy 

In the mid-2000s, only 16% of Apple’s facilities were powered by renewable energy. By 2016, however, that number had skyrocketed to 100% thanks to a commitment by Apple to build, finance or locate near renewable energy sources. 

Major players in the data center world have pledged to switch over to renewable energy sources in the next decade. In July 2020, Microsoft announced a commitment to eliminate diesel fuel use in its data centers and to invest in hydrogen-powered energy systems.

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, but it’s hard to separate from its natural compounds. Tech advances have made that process cheaper and easier over the last decade. Hydrogen fuel cells now offer a pathway to revolutionizing the green data centers, and renewable energy at large.

“We want to power our cloud off the sun – free clean energy,” said Sean James, Microsoft’s director of data center research in a press release.

“How do you do that? You have to get really good at storing energy, and hydrogen is a great way to do that.”


How Virtual Power Plants Can Solve the Energy Crisis Safely and Sustainably

This action has spurred other data centers to follow suit. One of the largest data centers in the world, Equinix, recently announced a research team tasked to explore the use of hydrogen fuel cells in the company’s data centers. 

Admittedly, building their own power sources isn’t an option for most IT teams. Fortunately, there are other, more viable green data center solutions, like investing in electronically commutated (EC) fans, purchasing environmental sensors and routinely checking systems for easy-to-fix issues. Updating compressions, waste recycling, shutting down dormant servers and transitioning to LED are all easy green data center solutions.

Software’s Role in Data Center Sustatainability

In the last few years, many IT leaders have vowed to make their data centers more sustainable. In May, for example, VMware announced its Carbon Committed Initiative, through which it has promised that all of its cloud partner data centers will be powered 100% by renewable energy by 2030.

“This initiative extends our reach and impact alongside our cloud partners,” VMware Global Channel Chief Sandy Hogan told CRN in a May 2021 interview

“It enables us to connect customers who have sustainability goals and are looking for low-carbon solutions with a VMware cloud provider who is committed to achieving zero carbon clouds through renewable energy-powered operations and energy-efficient data centers.”


Cloud Powers Autonomous Freight Truck System Designed to Cut Environmental Impact

In addition to a commitment to renewable energy, the program focuses on cloud-based green solutions to jumpstart the transition to a zero-carbon internet. Through cloud infrastructure and public-cloud partnerships, the company is working to connect cloud providers and customers with a shared commitment to provide energy- and carbon-efficient data centers.

Solutions like server virtualization mean there’s less physical equipment inside data centers, which in turn facilitates a smaller carbon footprint and less end-of-life IT waste. Self-service and pay-per-use cloud-based infrastructure allow customers to consume computing resources only when they need them.

“Sustainability is front and center for our data center growth and operations,” Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Cloud Operations + Innovation, said in a statement. 

In its Environmental, Social, and Governance Report released in mid-2021, Nutanix stated that sustainability is at the core of the enterprise software it makes. The company’s hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) and hybrid multicloud IT software help its over 19,000 customers “to significantly reduce their carbon footprint through utilizing less hardware to run the same workloads.” Nutanix has a plan for its IT operations to use 80% less energy and 85% less water than traditional cooling systems, with some systems that will run without water cooling. 

To achieve these goals, the IT team is moving more of it’s data centers to run on it’s own hybrid cloud infrastructure software, which includes virtualization, provisioning other capabilities for scaling up or down computing resources as needed.

“Data center operators have to maximize efficiency on every inch of data center space,” said Harmail Singh Chatha, principal designer of Nutanix’s data center. He’s worked on over 100 data centers in his career and said the conversation is really changing around sustainability.

“We have a number of customers reaching out to our sales folks asking, ‘what are you guys doing from a sustainability standpoint?’” 

He said data center energy consumption varies widely from one installation to the next. Data centers in office buildings, for instance, are much less energy efficient than a purpose-built data center, whose environmental controls can be optimized to manage electricity consumption, he explained. The hyper-dense data centers Chatha helped Nuanix build in recent years consist of commodity hardware-filled racks crammed with extra processing power. Each stack combines compute, networking and storage and uses the company’s HCI software to virualize and manage resources.

“It’s now the age of the software-defined data center,” he said. “That’s the mindset that everybody has to go into in this industry.”

So, where is the data center business going? More automation is on the way, Chatha predicts. His team considered deploying robots to Nutanix’s data center to roam around and monitor the environment. He said robots could do some tasks that are easy to automate. 

“Ultimately, I think it'd be challenging to get robots to do everything in the data center,” he concluded, but this, too, could help maintain a data center’s optimal performance. 

Cloud-powered artificial intelligence offers a creative solution for managing workloads. In May, for example, Google announced that its “carbon-intelligent computing platform” will process one-third of Google’s non-production workloads next year. The technology schedules non-urgent workloads within each data center to run when that data center is getting the most renewable energy. 

“By enabling our data centers to shift flexible tasks to different times of the day, we were able to use more electricity when carbon-free energy sources like solar and wind are plentiful,” Ross Koningstein, co-founder of Google’s Carbon-Intelligent Computing project, wrote in a blog post.

Just a few years ago, green data centers might have been a far-fetched myth. What once sounded like fiction, however, is now a fact. By combining creative and sustainable built environments with green cloud solutions, companies in the carbon-heavy communications and technology sector can forge a path to a greener planet—because of technology, not in spite of it.

This is an updated version of the original article published August 12, 2021 and updated on October 10, 2022 and February 5, 2024.

Jacob Gedetsis is a contributing writer. His work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Post Standard and The Plain Dealer, among others. Find him on Twitter at @JacobGedetsis.

Chase Guttman contributed to the update.

© 2024 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. For additional legal information, please go here.