Data centre managers are constantly searching for best practices that allow them to access circular IT with confidence. Here, Ian Shearer, Managing Director, APAC & EMEA, Park Place Technologies, discusses how data centre leaders can close the life cycle loop and achieve their net zero goals.
Jumping into circular IT when you run a complex innovative data centre may seem like a bridge too far. Collectively, data centres house more electrical, compute, data processing and storage equipment than any other type of facility.
With over 8 million sites registered in 2021, data centres also represent a major focus for IT to achieve new environmental and sustainability targets. Having historically housed the latest bleeding-edge technology, data centres have traditionally left vast quantities of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) in their wake – in part because of short pre-dictated vendor product life cycles for ‘supported’ optimal usage that only ‘rip and replace’ cycles can overcome.
Yet times have changed in response to the climate crisis, with IT leaders becoming increasingly savvy in extending lifetime windows to avoid disposable IT. Constant supply cycles from incumbent hardware providers are now largely viewed as both unsustainable and unacceptable to corporations. Very few global organisations running data centres wish to continue with arbitrary cycles of buying new – and depleting more precious earth elements and minerals for new kit than is absolutely necessary and critical – while decommissioning perfectly serviceable equipment along the way.
As such, the response of the IT industry to averting the climate crisis is now extending far further, deep into the remit of circular usage and procurement models. Data centres with their vast hardware asset itineraries offer maximum potential. Deploying circular IT methodologies represents the third action on a three-stage tier for data centres keen to deliver on their environmental tech promises. First came the imperative drive to dramatically cut data centres’ operating energy efficiency overheads and reliance on fossil fuels through energy efficiency programmes and by opting for other power sources such as renewable. Second came deliberations on redesign of data centre waste by-products from utilisation activities such as Energy Reuse Effectiveness (ERE) rechannelling the output heat generated from vast IT cooling operations for alternate heat supply.
And now in the third stage of IT’s response, attention on the environmental aspects of data centres is turning towards creation of true and sustainable circular economies for data centre hardware equipment usage that will dramatically improve and assist with the wider IT industry’s sustainability efforts. Adherence to circular purchasing models will also address areas such as developing recycled IT infrastructures and at the same time, will cut the wait times for supply-chain shortages through effective reuse of the IT equipment. Returning to the earlier point about the decline of vendor-led arbitrary buying cycles, most IT leaders now appreciate that data centre hardware, typically storage, servers and networking hardware equipment, can – with the right support partner, warranties and software in place – easily continue to be supported for an additional five years at a minimum. This is possible through post-warranty support and even longer with End of Service Life support, with the appropriate optimisation tweaks keeping performance levels assured.
So, what does using a Circular Economy in the data centre actually mean in practice? At its very core is the desire to come as close to zero wastage for IT equipment as is possible, meaning that existing data centre hardware, networking and cabling should be kept in use for as long as possible. Circular adherence positively encourages IT leaders to look towards active hardware reuse to create a looping procurement chain with sustainability top of mind with every hardware asset. Why? Even before it is unboxed, every brand-new data centre asset already comes with acres of energy loss and increased carbon footprint stamped already gained within its production life cycle. This energy loss could be attributed from the sourcing and mining of critical raw materials often from remote and hard-to-access locations in the world, or from the sheer energy overhead of adding components in the product manufacturing line. Then, factor in the shipping energy overhead, plus once in situ, the pre-production testing demands. (Not neglecting the land-fill waste implications for the redundant e-waste kit, most of which is then shipped onwards, often to developing countries to process and dump, – around 50 metric tonnes globally according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor).
Which are the most used precious raw materials that need mining for data centre hardware? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the list is pretty extensive. Gold; a great electricity conductor, remains a key part of most circuit boards. Power supplies have iron ore inside. Silver and palladium make up further components of many circuit boards. Steel makes up part of the outer casing. Gold-plated pins and connectors run throughout the machine. Copper makes up the connective wires. In displays, dwindling supplies of the metal Indium actually threatens long-term production of LCDs. The depletion of these precious raw materials is where the rules of circular IT procurement really reap rewards through material recovery processes. Consider then the impact at IT asset disposal stage, where to avoid more e-waste, trusted suppliers could offer material recovery practices allowing precious materials to go back into manufacturing streams and once again become part of the technology manufacturing process.
Repurposing and advanced recycling should be considered as part of circular IT. Again, specialists in IT Asset Disposal (ITAD) and resale must be used in order to access optimal supply and pricing – sourced right across the globe. Often this involves tapping into an ITAD specialist provider’s pre-owned marketplace by either selling or buying up assets that remain fit for purpose, or by repurposing existing assets for intelligent, extended use elsewhere. The gains that IT leaders can recognise in the reusable market are significant, saving budget alongside the earth’s fast depleting resources. Digital innovation moves at a far greater pace than other industries – sometimes leading to technology becoming quicky outpaced. But equally, for circular efforts, this means IT can often consider reuse of very modern assets, sometimes simply Gen -1 equipment, sourced from those still working under vendor linear practices.
Closing the life cycle loop and offering the most secure, sustainable way of data centres achieving net zero goals means careful planning and delivery across every part of the journey. This usually happens alongside a trusted third party that can advise on the entire position of the estate; ascertaining holistically what can be reused, repurposed, material recovered, resold, or recycled. Circularity isn’t going away. Disposable IT, however, is.
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