Computing Profession

How Computing Goes Green

Is your datacenter powered by fossil fuels, or renewable energy?
Some tech companies taking the lead on building a more environmentally sustainable future for computing.

Your computing power may live in the cloud, but that doesn't mean it's contributing to clear skies. Carbon emissions are a leading driver of climate change—and the tech industry is turning into a polluter almost as serious as planes, trains, and automobiles.

According to research from McMaster University, the information and communication industry, if left unchecked, could account for nearly half as much emissions as the entire transportation industry by 2040.

Some tech companies taking the lead on building a more environmentally sustainable future for computing, either by making their operations and products green or by producing solutions that help other companies save the planet.

Supermicro, a computing hardware company headquartered in Silicon Valley, is one of many firms embracing sustainability for environmental and business reasons. "The combination of environmental and economic savings [from sustainability efforts] creates a virtuous cycle for our customers and future innovations," says Michael McNerney, Supermicro vice president of marketing and network security.

Giant companies with giant (carbon) footprints

Datacenters are major offenders when it comes to carbon emissions. Broadly defined as the physical locations that house computing infrastructure, datacenters alone create about 0.3% of all global carbon emissions, according to Nature. In the near future, the information and communications industry could account for 20% of global carbon emissions, with datacenters accounting for a third of that.

That has tech companies looking closely at datacenters as a major driver in reducing emissions. In early 2019, Microsoft released a plan to speed up its sustainability goals, according to CNET. The plan's goal is to reduce the company's carbon emissions 75% by 2030—and datacenters are a key piece of that plan.

Microsoft plans to get there by converting its datacenters to run entirely on renewable energy. The software giant is also upping the "internal carbon fee" it has had in place since 2012, a fee charged charged to the company's business units of around $8-10 per metric ton of carbon their operations used. As part of this new plan, Microsoft is raising that fee to $15 per metric ton.

Last year, Microsoft installed an underwater datacenter off the coast of Scotland, as part of a pilot project (Project Natick) to build environmentally sustainable datacenters on the ocean floor. Datacenters like this one can be "left to operate lights out on the seafloor for years," says the company.

Microsoft isn't the only tech company trying to fight climate change with greener computing. Google and Apple both say they are 100% "carbon neutral." According to RE100, a "global corporate leadership initiative bringing together influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity," Apple "achieved 100% renewable electricity powering its global facilities across 43 countries" in April 2018, while Google "achieved its goal of sourcing 100% renewable electricity globally in 2017."

Google achieved sustainability in part by buying renewable energy to offset its electricity usage, including buying the energy produced by 1.6-million solar panels near its datacenters in Tennessee and Alabama. The juice is much needed: the company consumes a mammoth "5.7 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity across all of its operations, about the same as San Francisco used in the same year," according to ZDNet.

Supermicro, the server company, also offers products that help customers reduce their environmental impact by using less power and creating less waste. These include disaggregated systems that can be independently updated to reduce the waste that occurs when upgrades are needed, says McNerney. "We are looking at fundamentally changing the server refresh cycle," he says. "We can significantly reduce waste by not unnecessarily replacing infrastructure every three to five years."

Some of Supermicro's systems are also designed to run in a more environmentally friendly way, which saves money on power costs. That includes power and cooling infrastructure systems that are designed to run at higher temperatures without impacting reliability. Says McNerney, "We have customers running these systems at scale who are saving millions."

Some companies, however, aren't waiting for tech companies to get their environmental acts together; they're creating solutions that make it a no-brainer to embrace sustainability.

One such company, Forced Physics DCT, has released new server cooling technology that eliminates water from the cooling process used in datacenters—which the company claims reduces the power used by 90%. The company's core product is a conductor that exchanges heat from electronics with outside air, without using water, which is often relied on to cool data centers at high environmental costs.

"The datacenter industry is the first application of Forced Physics technology," says Marianne Marshall, a Forced Physics representative.

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL, USA. He has written for over 60 major publications.

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