According to a new report, making servers and IT gear within a data center as efficient as possible — and ensuring they’re used as efficiently as possible — is the key to green data centers.

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The single most important step that a data center operator can take to reduce energy and carbon emissions from data centers is to make sure the IT equipment inside — the servers, the storage, and the communications — are as efficient (and are being used as efficiently) as possible. That’s according to a new report published in Nature this week from green data center researchers Eric Masanet, Arman Shehabi and Jonathan Koomey.

Markley data centerWhile the findings might seem obvious, there are a lot of actions that data center operators can take to make data centers greener, from deciding where to build data centers, to changing the architecture of the buildings, to using new methods of cooling. In the report, the researchers identify the most important steps that data centers operators can take to make facilities both more energy efficient and also to lower the carbon emissions associated with data centers.

The basic steps for targeting the low-hanging fruit go like this:

  • make the IT equipment (servers, storage, and communications) as efficient as possible.
  • make the infrastructure equipment (fans, cooling, pumps, power distribution) as efficient as possible.
  • make the electricity production that feeds the data center as low carbon as possible.

They also made this handy energy and carbon performance map to go along with their finding:

Masanet datacenter performancemap copyAs Koomey wrote in his blog post on the report, “IT efficiency (which includes higher utilization and performance improvements as well as purchasing efficient hardware) is the most important issue on which to focus.” While some of the action in the industry has focused on the efficiency of the network devices, the efficiency of the IT devices is lower hanging fruit and should be tackled first.

Just switching to clean power for data centers isn’t a good first step, because if energy use isn’t efficient, then the data center would be wasting the clean power electrons. The embodied energy of the IT devices — the energy that goes into manufacturing and recycling the devices — is far less important than how efficient the devices use energy, the report also found. In addition, the report found that PUE isn’t the greatest metric to examine the energy and carbon performance of data centers.

By Katie Fehrenbacher