The CDO Paradox: Data Flood Creating Water Drought

Image credit: iStockphoto/LonelyLove

Like a boulder rolling downhill, the global data stream continues to accelerate. COVID-19 drives us to virtual meetings, and there's no putting that genie back in the bottle — companies must accept that a certain percentage of the workforce is reluctant to resume commuting to an office environment.

Data consumption now takes a bigger slice of overall energy consumption, to the point where Elon Musk declared Bitcoin would no longer be accepted as payment for shiny new Tesla vehicles. His reason is Bitcoin mining by compute-power consumes too much electricity. This is no surprise to data center operators, who've long been aware of crammed server racks and their heat issues.

So, what's the hidden implication for chief digital officers?

Beyond the bullet-points

Good corporate citizens are expected to do their part in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. And these like power conservation aren't just bullet-points on a brochure, but a reality that must be faced.

Data centers are at the forefront here. “ halting the setting up of any more data centers until the end of [2019], saying the speed with which they’ve opened is putting an untenable strain on its property market and power networks,” wrote Bloomberg in mid-2019. The Dutch city may be a data center hub for the E.U., but power networks and property proved more powerful during those pre-COVID-19 times.

But the moratorium didn't last. A September 2020 article by Oliver Menzel, chief executive officer of European data center operator maincubes, explained, “Rethinking the future of data centers and their impact now includes using residual heat to power Amsterdam’s overall energy and heating supply.”

“The data center industry in Amsterdam is at a pivotal moment,” wrote Menzel. “The next one to two years will be very revealing in terms of how the city will balance the digital needs of its citizens with tradition and other urban planning constraints.”

Lion City slams brakes on data centers

While Amsterdam balances its digital needs, Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) declared a ‘temporary pause’ on new data centers in May 2021. According to MTI's written answer to a parliamentary question, data centers accounted for about 7% of the country’s total electricity consumption in 2020.

“The [Singapore] Government, therefore, decided to moderate the growth of data centers with a temporary pause on the release of state land for data centers, as well as the development of data centers on existing state land,” said MTI in a separate written reply.

Will Singapore react like Amsterdam and lift its moratorium in a year or two?

Volts, amperes...liters

Data centers exert strain on electrical grids but also consume large amounts of water for cooling. One of the more interesting water-cooling designs operates in Rennes√ły, Norway. Data center operator Green Mountain converted a former NATO ammunition storage facility “into a unique high-security mountain colocation data center” measuring 22,600 sq. m. The firm's website says the facility uses “cold water from the deep Norwegian fjords located adjacent to our using gravity, the cold water flows to the green data center cooling station without the need for power.”

According to Green Mountain, the power needed to pump the cold water from their pump station into the data center through heat exchangers equates to 3kW of power for 1000kW of cooling.

But not everyone has a fjord.

Water woes

The U.S. West currently suffers under severe drought conditions. The ongoing drought forms part of a perfect storm for data centers as WFH and other online activities drive demand for bandwidth in the backyard of tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.

“On May 17, the City Council of Mesa, Arizona, approved the USD 800 million development of an enormous data center...on an arid plot of land in the eastern part of the city,” wrote Olivia Solon in an NBC News story. “But keeping the rows of powerful computers inside the data center from overheating will require up to 1.25 million gallons of water each day.” Mesa's Vice Mayor Jenn Duff also protested and cited data from NOAA (the USA's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that showed last year as the driest in 126 years. “We are on red alert,” said Duff, “and I think data centers are an irresponsible use of our water.”

Why build data centers in the typically parched Western regions like Arizona? One factor is the availability of solar and wind energy. And local governments — eager to reap the benefits of such facilities — offer tax incentives and low-cost electricity.

But there's pushback. “In recent years, tensions over water use by data centers have flared in communities across the United States,” wrote NBC's Solon. “In 2017, conservation groups in South Carolina criticized Google over its request for a permit to draw 1.5 million gallons of water daily from a depleted aquifer to cool its expanding data center.”

This was in addition to the four million gallons of tap water the facility already used daily. Residents and conservation groups expressed concern about the company’s impact on the dwindling groundwater supply.

“After a two-year battle with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation league over the plans, Google reached an agreement to use only groundwater under limited conditions, for example, during maintenance work or as a backup during drier months, and instead pay for an alternative source of surface water,” wrote Solon.

Finite resources

Moore's Law has given us technological aptitude earlier generations could never dream of. But this bounty comes at a cost. CDOs know that to achieve their goals, they must help ensure their firms are good corporate citizens. And in 2021, that means recognizing that both power and water resources are finite and planning data centers accordingly.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/LonelyLove