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Building Operating Management

Survey Shows Challenges, Opportunities In Data Center Operations

In the spotlight are PUE, DCIM, and renewables

By Chuck Haigh 
 Data Centers   Article Use Policy

Data center owners and operators face a juggling act: keeping energy and cooling costs in check in today’s fast-paced technology environment, while anticipating future capacity demands. All the while, a slew of emerging technologies poses difficult decisions that can reverberate for years to come.

During the Spring 2014 Data Center World conference, Mortenson Construction conducted a survey and in person interviews with more than 220 respondents to take the pulse of data center owners, operators, and professions nationwide. The feedback illuminated the challenges and opportunities for data center facilities management. 

The search for a game-changer: The array of technologies cited by survey participants as potential game-changers reflects the progress made thus far to slow growing data center carbon footprints, but also suggest a lack of consensus over which solution is the most promising or practical to adopt.

Renewable energy, data center information management (DCIM) solutions, liquid-cooled cabinets, and hot aisle containments were thought to have the most potential.  

Growth shows no signs of slowing: Of those who own or lease data centers, more than half – 51 percent – said they recently expanded their facilities, while more than two-thirds – 69 percent – expect to expand their facility within five years. When asked, 37 percent of respondents predicted that the strong growth of data centers would continue for 10-20 more years. Nearly eight in ten professionals cited the largest drivers for strong data center growth to be cloud-based services and applications and greater digitization of information. 

A better PUE is within reach: Not surprisingly, when asked about one thing that owners would most like to change about their data center, the resounding answer was greater energy efficiency, and a better cooling/HVAC system, which also lends to a lower PUE. Even as greater demands are placed on data centers, nearly half of respondents said that a 1.3 power usage effectiveness (PUE) is achievable in the next five years, thanks to facility improvements. That would represent a 25-percent improvement over average 1.7 PUE reported in 2014, according to findings by the Uptime Institute.

Renewable energy no longer on the periphery: For most data center owners, renewable energy tops the list for lowering energy costs. While not immediately feasible for all facilities, the trend toward renewable energy will only strengthen, complementing design and operational efficiencies. Whether it’s wind, solar, or hydro, renewable energy increasingly makes environmental and economic sense − especially in an industry dependent on abundant power to operate. Renewable energy is becoming much more affordable and practical, making it attainable and attractive beyond the select group of early adopters. The study revealed an overwhelming majority of owners – 84 percent – would seriously consider a renewable energy strategy.

At the current pace, it’s a question of when, and not if, renewables become the norm in the data center industry. Even while innovators work to overcome some of the remaining obstacles the industry faces today, like the intermittent nature of power produced by wind and solar, data center operators now have many new choices for tapping into renewable energy.

In the short term, data center owners have the opportunity to contract for renewable energy from power providers through a power purchase agreement (PPA) or via renewable energy credits (RECs). Google is reportedly proposing a new tariff to buy renewable energy directly from utilities, a model it hopes will help scale renewable energy for data centers and other big energy consumers.

Facility trends likeliest to stick

With the constant technology improvement in the data center industry, there are a large number of promising new technologies. Owners are excited about the potential of DCIM to help them better understand and elevate performance - 54 percent of data center owners currently use a DCIM platform, and an additional 26 percent say they are likely to become future adopters. Containerized data centers and prefabricated construction components have also gained significant market traction among data center owners. 

Overall, a sense of optimism is shared amongst data center owners and operators regarding the opportunities that renewable energy may have on the growing data center carbon footprint. There is an increased tendency for decision-makers to consider new technologies and designs that better address PUE and water consumption, and DCIM appears to be gaining advocates and increasing adoption rates with the promise of radically improving performance.

Chuck Haigh is Mortenson Construction’s director of project development, with a focus on data centers, mission critical, corporate, sports, water and wastewater treatment projects. He leads the Seattle office’s project pursuit and positioning activities, building and nurturing strategic relationships and partnerships as well as managing marketing, public relations, proposals/presentations and branding/advertising activities for the office.

posted on 12/20/2015