The True Cost of a Data Center – and What to do About it

Many of the tech giants are ahead of the curve when it comes to green energy. Press reports have praised the efforts of Apple, Google and Facebook in bringing forward green energy innovation to power data centers. However, we must ask ourselves if energy usage is the whole story when it comes to sustainable data storage in an increasingly digitalized future. 


Hard won hardware 

Running a data center requires a lot of energy, but so does making one. Computer chips have a high environmental impact relative to their weight, as discovered in a study, The 1.7 Kilogram Microchip:  Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices:  

“The total weight of secondary fossil fuel and chemical inputs to produce and use a single 2-gram 32MB DRAM chip are estimated at 1600g and 72g, respectively.” 

This is because a chip fabrication plant can use millions of gallons of water a day as well as create hazardous waste. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the largest chip manufacturer in the world. According to Greenpeace figures, TSMC alone uses almost 5% of all of Taiwan’s electricity and in 2019 it used 63m tons of water.  

Here in the US, Intel’s Arizona chip fabrication plant produced nearly 9,000 tons of toxic waste in the beginning of 2021. It also used 927m gallons of fresh water, enough to fill about 1,400 Olympic swimming pools, and used 561m kilowatt-hours of energy. 


Hyperscale and faster refresh rates 

The cloud has changed the model of data centers from highly controlled physical infrastructures to hyperscale data centers. Spending on cloud IT infrastructure surpassed $74 billion in 2020 and is expected to rise in the near future. The rapid growth in the demand for data across the globe is leading to increased demand for hyperscale data centers, with more than 659 hyperscale data centers in operation in 2021 – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2016.  

Within this space, equipment replacements are carried out at much faster rates than they have ever been. A chairman of the Green Grid has commented, 

“When I started out in the industry 20 years ago at IBM, if someone bought a server or system it would last you three to five years. The refresh rates we’re talking about now across the entire industry are around eight to 12 months. It is unsustainable.” 


The problems with recycling 

Technology has not advanced far enough to recover all raw materials from electrical waste. One ton of circuit boards contains 30-40 times as much copper than a ton of copper ore. For gold, it’s 40-80 times. There are a host of valuable materials contained in data center equipment. 

However, a recycler will be forced to make a choice between which metal they decide to recover because they cannot retrieve both at the same time. Oftentimes, the company will make the decision on the quantity contained in the equipment and the current market price. 

Turning a good profit in this situation is more complicated than it might first appear. For one thing, the materials list will vary according to component, manufacturer and generation. What goes into each part is considered proprietary information by those that make them, so recyclers don’t know what they have until they test it in the lab. If they accept a one-ton load, it is often a bit of a lottery when it comes to the value they will be able to retrieve from it. 

In 2018, the US Department of the Interior published a list of 35 critical raw materials (CRM) – 14 of which the US is 100% reliant on the import of and include: graphite, manganese, tungsten, antimony, rare earths, and tantalum. These materials, targeted by policymakers for their rarity or difficulty in sourcing them worldwide, are in IT equipment. 

Another issue when it comes to CRM is global resource security and access to these materials. Governments around the world are prioritizing access to CRM. These materials are used by all industries and in all stages of the supply chain. It is predicted that global use of CRMs could double between 2010 and 2030, further putting stress on our supply. 

It’s clear that reuse is a much more valuable solution. A ton of servers is worth at least 4 times more when refurbished and resold than when it is sold for scrap. However, the depletion of metal and mineral resources tends to be largely ignored by the big data center owners, who focus instead on renewable power supplies.  


Sustainability strategies of the Tech Giants  

Microsoft’s latest sustainability report was published in 2020. Their report publicises a commitment to become carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030. Meta (Facebook), in their latest 2020 sustainability report, has outlined their efforts to reach net zero emissions for their value chain by 2030.   

In their 2021 environmental progress report, Apple sets out their goal to become carbon neutral across their entire footprint by 2030. Their strategy is to first reduce emissions by 75 percent compared to 2015, and then invest in carbon removal solutions for the remaining emissions.  

Google shared their latest sustainability strategy in their 2020 environmental report. Google has set out the aim to operate on carbon-free energy 24/7 by 2030. The strategy also focuses on designing, building, and operating each of their data centers to maximize efficient use of energy, water, and materials. 


2nd Hand isn’t 2nd Best 

Top quality refurbished products, identical to brand new in terms of functionality and customer guarantee, deliver massive savings when compared to new equipment. With refurbishment processes and the correct configuration, 2nd hand technology performs just as well as new. We proved this fact in a recent IEEE published paper.  

The research as outlined in the IEEE paper examined performance and energy draw to address cost payback points. What the research proves is that for the same performance, refurbished technology results in a cheaper option to many businesses for identical capabilities, thus lowering the financial cost of a data center.  

Refurbished technology also plays a role in lowering the environmental cost of data centers. Choosing refurbished equipment for your data center aids in the creating of a circular IT economy, diverting useful technology and resources away from landfill. Plus some major players are leaning into using refurbished equipment, like Google.  


The Circular Solution 

Google has publicly stated it has introduced sustainability into hardware supply and management. In 2016, Google released a report with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, called The Circular Economy At Work in Google Data Centers. It detailed Google’s use of refurbished servers and components in its data centers. 75% of components consumed in Google’s spares program in 2015 were refurbished inventory, 19% of servers Google deployed were remanufactured machines, and 52% of components consumed in its Machine Upgrades program were refurbished inventory. 

Kate Brandt, Sustainability Lead, has publicly stated that using refurbished equipment saves the company money: 

“We’re saving hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Not only is it really effective from a resource efficiency perspective but there is a really strong business case.” 

Google is not doing this exclusively for the bottom line, although the cost savings are significant. It is adopting these methods because they are the smartest solution for short-term economics and long-term resource efficiency. 


Reducing Carbon Footprint 

Apart from Google, many other companies are turning to cutting-edge technology in rethinking sustainability. Advances in technology mean that you can now access a tool that carries out an analysis of your data center(s), finding out the potential cost, energy and carbon savings that can be achieved. By identifying the lowest performing servers, and then converting this information into energy efficiency, the Interact tool suggests solutions that will guarantee a reduction in costs over time plus a lower carbon footprint.  

As more companies look to reduce both the financial and environmental cost of data centers, innovative tools like Interact are great for making operational decisions and demonstrating quantifiable improvements when producing company reports. Having a clear analysis which allows for future planning, growth, and sustainability is truly the way forward when reducing our carbon footprint on our planet.  


Curious about how you can lower the true cost of your data center? Get in touch with our experienced team to learn about how we can help maximize your IT budget.  

Don’t just take our word for it! With fast turnarounds, excellent customer support and great shipping options, customers come back to us time and time again for quality IT equipment.