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Survey Says: For Data Centers, Sustainability Appears To Be Nothing More Than Talk

The data center industry has discussed sustainability for years, but a recent study shows most operators aren’t putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to tracking environmental impact.


Facing pressure to reduce the amount of power and water needed for data processing and storage, leading data center providers are increasingly promoting green initiatives and focusing on clean energy and carbon reduction in marketing copy.

Yet a new study by the industry group Uptime Institute shows that most data center operators aren't tracking key sustainability metrics needed to make meaningful progress toward reducing energy and water consumption

“With sustainability and environmental impact, the focus on that for this sector is certainly growing, yet our data reveals that practices are somewhat lagging,” said Rhonda Ascierto, Uptime Institute’s vice president of research. “We know that these are things that are not calculated often — that these are relatively rare metrics.”

As digital transformation creates a seemingly insatiable demand for server space and data centers, the environmental impact of data and information technology has led to greater scrutiny of how the data center industry uses natural resources. Pressure has come not only from environmental groups, media and policymakers but from enterprise clients needing to meet their own sustainability goals.

As a result, operators across the data center industry have made sustainability a central talking point — from announcing plans to be carbon-free or water neutral in the near future to presenting nuclear-power crypto mining as a clean energy effort. 

But according to the Uptime Institute’s annual Global Data Center Survey, most companies aren’t even measuring key aspects of their power and water usage, especially metrics that don’t tie closely with their bottom line. Less than a third of responding companies measured data center carbon emissions, and only 40% tracked so-called server utilization, perhaps the most important measure of overall energy efficiency. Just 25% of companies recorded e-waste and other impacts stemming from the equipment life cycle. Half of the respondents didn’t track water usage at all. 

Uptime Institute analysts say the data suggests that few companies are willing to invest in measuring environmental impact without financial or regulatory incentives. Indeed, 63% of respondents stated they did not track water usage because there was no good business reason to do so. 

But some measures of efficiency track with a company’s bottom line and greater industrywide adoption of sustainability measures will come as more industry leaders see that connection, Uptime Executive Director of Research Andy Lawrence said.

“Even if sustainability were not an issue, you should still track things like IT power consumption and server utilization for business reasons, because you will save money if you do these things well and run efficiently,” he said. “That’s the main reason why people have done it — not the only reason, but it’s a strong reason.”

Whether or not data center operators see reduced resource use as good business practice, Lawrence says they may have no choice as governments and environmental regulators increasingly focus on data centers and digital infrastructure

“If you don’t track these other things, get ready to track them, because it’s coming,” Lawrence said. “I don’t think there are going to be many geographies that are not going to be requiring mandatory reporting of all of these things, including water.”