5 sustainability concepts driving the data center of the future


Written By: Arno van Gennip VP Global IBX Operations Engineering

The theme for Earth Day 2022 is “Invest in Our Planet.” It’s an idea we’re proud to support, as it aligns with our own Data Center of the Future initiative. We believe investing in sustainable data center technologies isn’t just the right thing to do for the future of our planet; it can also be a key source of business value for our customers today.

The 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, report “Ten tech trends driving transformation in 2022” provides more insights that back up our thinking. According to the report, sustainability is a key factor for enterprises evaluating colocation providers, with 79% rating it either “very important” or “somewhat important”. The report goes on to emphasize how innovative colocation providers are meeting this demand: 

“As enterprises look to operate more sustainably, using the public cloud will be one way to dramatically improve IT efficiency. However, for those workloads they do not want to move to the cloud, leased data centers provide another option, offering much more efficient infrastructure than the typical aging enterprise data center.”

At Equinix, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made toward our sustainability goals, but we know there’s much more to be done. In this blog, we’ll highlight the five key principles of our Data Center of the Future initiative, and look at how each supports the goals of making our operations more sustainable and unlocking business value for our customers.

We believe the climate and sustainability challenges facing the data center industry are much too complex to be addressed by one organization working alone. That’s why we’re developing the Data Center of the Future concepts with the help of leading partners in our Co-Innovation Facility (CIF) in the Washington, D.C. area. 

  • Generator-less data centers

Among the technologies Equinix is developing in the CIF are generator-less data centers. Working in partnership with Bloom Energy, we are testing solid oxide fuel cells as a potential replacement for traditional diesel generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units. We believe this work could be the first step toward a cleaner, more efficient primary power source for data centers.

In addition to our work in the CIF, we have joined the EcoEdge PrimePower (E2P2) consortium along with six other companies to support the further development of low-carbon fuel cells. In December 2021, the consortium’s joint proposal received a grant of €2.5 million from the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, part of the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission. 

The fuel cells use a unique tri-fuel design, allowing them to consume whichever fuel source is locally available: natural gas, green hydrogen or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Each of these fuels can be transported over existing pipelines, meaning the fuel cells can be easily integrated into data centers without expensive infrastructure upgrades.

Replacing traditional generators with alternative power solutions such as fuel cells will not only reduce carbon emissions, but also cut capital expenses, shrink data center footprints (allowing them to be deployed easily in densely populated areas), and minimize time and resources required for maintenance.

  • Renewable energy

Last year, Equinix became the first data center operator to commit to becoming globally climate-neutral by 2030. In pursuit of that goal, we set a science-based target (SBT) to reduce emissions across our entire operations and supply chain. By shrinking our carbon footprint and improving our power usage effectiveness (PUE), we aim to do our part to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. 

One of the key components of our climate-neutrality goal is to reach 100% renewable energy coverage across both existing and future data center sites by 2030. We formalized this commitment by leading the development of and becoming a founding signatory to the EU Climate Neutral Data Centre Operator Pact, an industry self-regulatory initiative that includes strong private sector commitments and government policy recommendations.

Since then, we’ve made tremendous progress toward that goal, reaching 95% renewable energy consumption in 2021. We have achieved this by pursuing a variety of renewable energy sources based on local availability, including wind power purchase agreements (PPAs) like the one we recently signed with Björkliden wind farm in Finland. This clean energy will be used to power both our customers’ IT equipment and our overhead load. 

  • Airflow management

Equinix data centers include physical barriers that help contain cold air in supply aisles (to keep data center equipment cool and functioning properly) and hot air in exhaust aisles (to remove waste heat from the data center as quickly as possible). By minimizing the amount of air mixing between the cold and hot aisles, we can ensure the most efficient distribution of cooling air possible, and therefore minimize the amount of power dedicated to cooling.

Airflow management techniques are being deployed in Equinix facilities throughout the world, but they are particularly beneficial in data centers found in warmer climates, such as our Equinix IBX® facilities in Singapore.  

  • High-density cooling

In the past, traditional air-cooling methods were sufficient to fully meet the cooling needs of the data center industry. However, as technology has advanced, the hardware needed to support that technology has increased in power density. This means that air cooling alone may no longer be enough, particularly in the case of new power-dense technologies like AI. Liquid cooling technologies provide an attractive alternative, and Equinix is investing in research, testing and ecosystem partnerships to drive adoption of liquid cooling methods across our data center footprint. 

Liquid cooling adoption in the data center industry has thus far been limited by a “chicken or egg” problem. This means there are two sides that must both act before widespread liquid cooling adoption can become feasible:

  • Hardware manufacturers must commit to building liquid-capable servers at scale.
  • Colocation providers must commit to supporting liquid cooling from a practical and mechanical perspective (building the cooling systems and providing the skilled workforce to maintain them).

Equinix is doing our part from the colocation side, as demonstrated by our work with ZutaCore in the CIF. We’re testing highly efficient rack systems that can cool 100 kW or more per rack with a compact, waterless design. These high-density liquid cooling systems stand to help us optimize our energy and water usage, while also shrinking the footprint of our data center facilities. 

We’re also collaborating to help address the hardware side of the equation. We joined Open19, an open-source hardware project that includes a variety of industry leaders, to support the development of a new “plug-and-play” coupler for liquid cooling systems. We believe that creating an industry-standard design capable of supporting all major liquid cooling techniques—immersive, single phase and dual phase—could help lower the barrier to entry for liquid cooling adoption across the industry.

  • Intelligent power management

No matter which technologies are being deployed in data centers or what energy sources are used to power them, it’s impossible to maximize energy efficiency using manual power monitoring and delivery methods. By deploying sensors to identify potential energy waste and leveraging software management platforms to adjust accordingly, the Data Center of the Future will ensure power is delivered to equipment in the most efficient, uniform way possible. This means delivering the right amount of power to the right place at the right time.

One example of this is our work with VPS to support the development of a software-defined power management solution. When used together with our cabinet-mounted battery energy storage solution (developed in partnership with Natron Energy), the software-defined power solution can help manage power draw and limit power stranding to nearly 0%. We estimate that proper use of this solution could improve power efficiency in data centers by as much as 30-50%. 

Equinix is making the Data Center of the Future a reality

While many of these ideas are still in the testing phase, there are other examples of how Equinix is putting sustainability practices into use today. For instance, our BX1 data center in Bordeaux is our first facility built using a modular, “Green by Design” construction process. In addition to being much quicker to build than traditional data centers, BX1 uses a decoupled energy platform capable of supporting multiple energy sources and greener energy storage. 

Since the BX1 design is modular, it can be easily replicated in new locations throughout the world. It can also ensure built-in compliance with environmental regulations, easing the concerns of local governments that have grown cautious about allowing new data center builds in their jurisdictions.

Sustainability is also an ingrained part of the Equinix culture in more unexpected ways. Our new PA10 data center in Paris includes a groundbreaking heat recovery project, which will divert waste heat from customer equipment to be reused in the community heating network. In addition, the new data center will include a rooftop greenhouse with a water recovery system that will help retain rainwater and minimize the amount of water directed into sewers. 

In Ireland, we have joined Orchards in the Community, a program that sends orchards to local schools. This gives children a chance to learn first-hand the importance of protecting pollinators. Orchards in the Community is part of DCs for Bees, an industry initiative where data center providers are coming together to protect the local bee population and support greater biodiversity across Ireland.

See other trends driving IT transformation

At Equinix, we’re pursuing sustainable innovation not just because it’s the best thing for the future of our world, but also because it’s the best thing for our business and our customers today. As the 451 Research report notes, sustainable operations are imperative to enable effective digital transformation and overcome disruption. To learn the other trends 451 Research identified as key drivers of transformation in 2022. 


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