Data Centres: Fact, Fiction and a Way Ahead – 28 April 2022

On 28 April, the Government Panel and the IT and Climate Change Working Group held a joint dinner in Information Technologists’ Hall.   The guest speaker was Emma Fryer, who until very recently managed the UK Council of Data Centre Operators and techUK’s Data Centres Technical Committee. Her talk was both knowledgeable and witty; taking us on a journey of discovery of data centre myths and realities. She started with the different types of data centre and their possible impact on the environment, giving a delightful analogy with the mass of mosquitoes (most of IT) and elephants (data centres) – which is the heavier? She also wove fairy tales into her narrative (Rumpelstiltskin) and even the zombie apocalypse.

Key takeaways were that data centres were somewhere between 20 and 25% of the total energy consumption of ICT and that growth in their power consumption has flatlined since 2013. They are obviously growing in number, so good progress in efficiency. However there is a lot of uncertainty, with little research on understanding data centre power consumption. Performance of public sector data centres is largely unknown, with systems buried in layers of IT and not separately reported on.  Emma highlighted the rebound effect (aka Jevon’s paradox) that as we increase the efficiency of a process we invariably use more of it.  In defence of data centres, they have perhaps been unfairly singled out as the visible part of IT’s global warming impact. A lively Q&A followed where we learned that new projects are collocating data centres with renewable power and recycling heat into the local area. There is also a need to inform and influence Government policy. A final thought was on the social value if data centres, with Bitcoin very much in mind