How seven billion smartphones could impact data center sustainability

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When we touch our smartphones—devices the average person spends more than three hours a day on—we expect them to be up and running immediately and continuously.

A staggering 85% of the world’s population, 6.92 billion people, now own smartphones. And it is well documented that expectations are high on performance—people are not willing to wait for pretty much anything. For example, the average time people spend on a web page is about 15 seconds—you can’t even read this paragraph in 15 seconds.

Society has become incredibly dependent on these devices. For example, when was the last time you saw an actual public pay phone in the United States? Not too long ago, they were at every gas station—now, if you don’t have a mobile, you are out of luck if you need help.

However, what’s perhaps obvious to folks in the IT industry that people outside the industry may be oblivious to is that all these phones depend on data centers located somewhere in the world, perhaps nearby, but most likely not. In other words, it’s not about the phone per se; it’s about the interconnected network because both phone and network must be working to bring users the experience they have come to expect.

Our increased use of smartphones contributes to data center growth, which McKinsey estimates will grow 10% a year through 2030. And that growth leads to important questions, such as:

Are we managing these data centers effectively? Are they secure? Are we being responsible with our use of resources?

smartphone device

Opportunities To Improve

I believe that despite our progress—and we have made plenty of progress as an industry—there are opportunities to do better.

As cited in Uptime Institute’s recent study, “80% of data center managers and operators have experienced some type of outage in the past three years – a marginal increase over the norm, which has fluctuated between 70% and 80%.”

With the spread of hybrid IT and the proliferation of edge data centers, IT is often a sprawling proposition, and with that sprawl comes a larger potential attack surface for hackers. In 2022, 493.33 million ransomware attacks were detected by organizations worldwide, and the global average data breach cost was $4.35 million.

When it comes to energy, data centers consumed an estimated 240-340 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity globally in 2022, accounting for around 1-1.3% of final electricity demand and estimated to be growing two times faster than electricity demand overall.

This rapid growth is driving a focus on sustainability, which is increasingly top of mind for the industry. And this isn’t limited just to phones and the big data center providers. Many CIOs are managing highly distributed infrastructure, with more than half of their IT outside the public cloud. As a result, sustainability reporting is changing.

Historically, IT departments haven’t worried about power, adopting a “let the real estate/facility department deal with that issue” mentality. But, the focus on sustainability is changing this dynamic. CIOs are beginning to ask questions such as, “Where is the power sourced, and how much is renewable?” They likely have a bigger focus on the efficiency of the IT equipment itself, including the apps running on that IT. In short, CIOs will want to know their carbon footprint and what they can do to manage it more effectively.

But what’s surprising is that most data centers are not managed effectively today. According to Gartner, Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) Tools has a market penetration of 5% to 20% of its target audience.

So, we have an infrastructure that isn’t as reliable as it needs to be, may have cyber risks, and we don’t know as much as we’d like about how to make it carbon-responsible.

Is Regulation Coming?

With these types of trends, it is not surprising to see governments getting involved. The European Commission recently revised the Energy Efficiency Directive to significantly increase the E.U.’s energy efficiency target, ensuring an additional 11.7% reduction in energy consumption by 2030. This means an overall savings potential of €630 billion per year for European industry, and it could create 400,000 new jobs.

For data centers, this means mandatory energy use reports. According to Data Center Dynamics, “Under the EED, starting on 15 May 2024, data center owners and operators in the bloc will have to report their data center’s energy performance for the previous year annually into a European database.”

Seeing the greater level of reporting that will be required, you don’t need to be a betting person to believe that once the regulations start, they are likely to keep going and even expand.

It’s Time To Turn Opportunities Into Solutions

The IT industry is one of the world’s fastest-moving and dynamic industries. The tools and capabilities to solve these challenges are there—but we need to focus on prioritizing resiliency, security and sustainability to have a more reliable and better managed and operated infrastructure. The companies that do this well will likely discover a competitive advantage by running their business more efficiently with less waste.

This article was previously published in Forbes.

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