GREEN IT & SUSTAINABILITY
Going full circle When it comes to tackling data centre e-waste, Ali Fenn, president at ITRenew, explores how a circular approach can maximise the economic life of hardware, reduce costs and minimise the environmental impact of the data centre. ata centre growth has been explosive over recent years – as has data centre waste. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the digital environment in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries have risen 450 million tonnes since 2013, according to Shift Project. Since 2000, e-waste has grown from 20 to 50 million tonnes per year, and is on pace toward a staggering 120 million annually by 2050, according to a 2019 report from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition. If these trends continue, the Semiconductor Industry Association projects computer power consumption will exceed global energy production by 2040. It’s time to adopt a new way of thinking about the economic and environmental value of data centre equipment and how that hardware is managed. ITRenew has developed a Circular Data Centre business model, based on detailed research, to maximise the economic life of hardware in the data centre environment. Adoption by the global IT hardware industry can lower total cost of ownership (TCO) by 24% or more, and decrease the greenhouse gas impact of the data centre industry by 24% or more. Moving to a Circular Data Centre model isn’t an abstract future concept. It’s happening right now. The technology, engineering expertise and business models are all in place, and the transformation of the data centre economy is occurring even as you read this.
Data growth The increasing number of data centres worldwide has been driven by substantial growth in data handled – from 33ZB in 2018 to an expected 175ZB by 2025. On a physical level, this expanding infrastructure manifests as data centres of all sizes, from modular containers to “hyperscale” facilities – centres with the ability to scale rapidly to meet increases in demand – that enable flow, storage and availability for all users. Due to this growth, the data centre market is projected to be worth over $520 billion in 2023, which is more than double the current market size. There are currently over 75 million servers in use in large data centres, but 46 million of those will reach the end of their working lives and need to be replaced within the next three years. While great progress has been made in improving energy efficiency, there is still a lot of work to do to establish the wide-scale reuse of retiring data centre equipment. The data centre industry and the circular approach The lifecycle of data centre hardware can be divided into pre-use, use, and post-use phases, following common life cycle analysis (LCA) meth-
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odology. The pre-use phase includes raw material sourcing, manufacturing and deployment of products. Emissions that derive from processes and materials in this phase are called embodied emissions. Emissions from the operational use phase include all those that occur while running the equipment in the data centre. The post-use phase covers all recycling and end-of-life (EoL) processes, which also generate emissions (not counted as embodied emissions). While the use phase is important, there needs to be much greater concentration on the environmental burden caused by producing data centre equipment during the pre-use phase of the hardware. Quantifying the carbon footprint of these wasteful practices is time-consuming and expensive due to a lack of extensive data sets as well as complex and very secretive supply chain practices. To overcome these barriers and help the industry run better analyses, we applied academic methods to collect, evaluate and use data for our model.
Since 2000 e-waste has grown from 20 to 50 million tonnes per year and is on pace toward a staggering 120 million annually by 2050 The purpose of moving away from the linear “take, make and dispose” economy is to keep products at their highest value for as long as possible – a core principle of the circular economy. For nearly two decades, ITRenew has worked closely with hyperscalers, enterprises and service providers. Through these relationships and direct access to hyperscale technology, ITRenew has proven that circularity can be applied effectively to this sector. Our approach not only delivers financial and sustainability returns, it opens up $50 billion annually in new financial opportunities for the largest market players, while democratising access to premium technology and making it affordable for the broader ecosystem. Hyperscale operators run short, aggressive server refresh cycles for good reason, continuously pushing the bounds of density and efficiency required for their scale and growth trajectories. These cycles, however, are unnaturally fast relative to the actual life of the technology. This creates compelling new needs to maximise the financial and sustainability value of those assets. Exploring the sustainable reuse of data centre equipment led ITRenew to develop a model that makes high-performing technology available to a broader market, extending its lifetime value. The innovation is in modelling and enabling aggregate lifetime value, via creation of multiple, cascading loops of life. After its primary use by a hyperscale operator, many data centre operators can benefit from