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Energy Efficiency Is Crucial for the ICT Infrastructure

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Until recently, most enterprises cared little about power consumption and environmental impacts. Except for large energy users and well-recognized publicly traded companies, zero-carbon goals were not part of most corporations’ agendas.

A recent report from EY indicates that data centers are now consuming a massive amount of energy. The Covid-19 pandemic fueled an increased need to transmit information digitally, and hybrid work—with unified communications—is pushing much more data via the cloud. Currently, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector accounts for 7% of global electricity use, according to EY’s report. Many projections signal a continued exponential increase in data traffic and the potential for ICT to rise to 14% of global emissions by 2040.

Data centers are energy-intensive, using an estimated 200 terawatt-hours each year—more than the national energy consumption of Iran,” according to the report. “The power requirements for emerging technologies are high and growing.”

The surge in energy costs during the last two years has caught the attention of large corporations. The current energy crisis, exacerbated by regional conflicts, has put the price of electricity and other forms of energy at its peak level in 100 years. This is now the most significant factor pushing enterprises to optimize operations and lower electricity use.

Power-sipping chips increase performance

Some of the larger cloud providers and other hyperscalers have started to replace 86x-based servers with Arm-based ones. Arm’s RISC architecture, ubiquitous in mobile devices, provides substantial power savings and, in many cases, performance increases.

Arm is working with several hyperscalers to design new processors to increase bandwidth and processing performance while reducing power consumption. One example cited by Mohamed Awad, SVP and general manager of infrastructure at Arm, is Amazon AWS and its Graviton processors. Amazon’s second generation, Graviton 2, launched in December 2019, delivers up to 40% improved price/performance over the same generation M5, C5 and R5 instances and reduces power consumption by 72%.

Arm’s market share in data centers rose to 7.1% in the second quarter of 2022, up from less than 1% in 2019, 2.2% in 2020 and 5.4% at the end of 2021, according to Omdia. This trend is expected to continue.

“These are servers built around an SoC, which they’ve developed based on our Neoverse implementation course,” Awad said at the Mobile World Congress 2023. “Now they can offer compute instances that are 30% to 40% cheaper than those based on other architectures. And that isn’t just because of the silicon cost. It’s because of the overall architecture they can put in place at a server level and the power they can save across their entire data center.”

At the end of the day, infrastructure is a data problem, he added. “And when I say infrastructure, it’s like with a capital ‘I.’ It’s more than just the infrastructure that I just described. It is the infrastructure that spans the largest supercomputers in the world, all the way down to the tiniest sensor. It’s about how we capture data at that tiny sensor, process it in the most efficient way possible, move it when needed to a higher-order compute node and do that in the best possible way.”

Meanwhile, Intel and AMD are introducing more powerful processors optimized for power savings. Intel recently launched its fourth-gen Xeon Scalable Sapphire Rapids CPUs.

“Compared with top-end third-gen Intel Xeon Scalable processors, fourth-gen Xeon users can expect a 2.9× average performance-per-watt efficiency improvement for targeted workloads when utilizing built-in accelerators, up to 70-W power savings per CPU in optimized power mode with minimal performance loss for select workloads, and a 52% to 66% lower TCO,” Intel said in a press release.

Fourth-gen Intel Xeon Scalable processors are Intel’s most sustainable data center processors, delivering a range of features for optimizing power and performance, making optimal use of CPU resources to help achieve customers’ sustainability goals, according to Intel.

Intel Xeon 4th-gen processor. (Source: Intel)

AMD also launched its EPYC Embedded 9004 server processors. The new series “delivers world-class performance and energy efficiency for next-generation networking, security and storage applications. Harnessing the performance and efficiency benefits of the new ‘Zen 4’ core architecture [5 nm] to achieve breakthrough performance-per-watt gains to ascend new summits in embedded compute and connectivity,” AMD said on its website.

The need for renewable energy

While the ICT sector continues to be one of the most significant segments to consume power, it also helps to optimize operations and reduce power consumption and carbon footprint for other industries.

Innovative communications technologies help quantify, monitor and predict energy usage while driving exponentially greater efficiency. ICT solutions could reduce global emissions by up to 15% in the future, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Today’s mobile technologies enable carbon reduction equivalent to 4% of global emissions, 10× the mobile industry’s carbon footprint.

That being said, it is critical that cloud and data center operators make a significant effort to source most of their electricity from renewable sources.

Google aims to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy everywhere by 2030. IBM aims to procure 75% of the electricity that IBM Cloud data centers consume worldwide from renewable sources by 2025 and 90% by 2030. Amazon wants to power its cloud operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025.

Renewable energy should be local

By some estimates, at least 1,400 GW of new renewable capacity is in America’s queues for connection to the four national grids.

The grids used by developed countries are not accustomed to rapid change. At the turn of the century, a couple of new power plants a year might begin to supply energy to balance power usage, replace old facilities or compete on price. Overall, net capacity changes very little and new plants often use the same connections as old ones.

The solution is for cloud and large data center operators to build and maintain renewable-energy sources near their operations—ideally, a mix of solar and wind power, tapping directly into those sources. Additionally, they can store surplus energy in large batteries to balance power consumption.

Bitcoin mining creates problems

A recent investigation by The New York Times shows that the rise of bitcoin mining in the U.S. creates severe problems for power companies that have to pay the “factories” to pause operations when demand peaks.

According to the article, 96% of the 450 MW used by the Riot Platforms “mine” in Rockdale, Texas, are met by fossil-fuel plants, causing nearly two megatons of carbon pollution each year. And the 34 large bitcoin plants in operation in the U.S. generate nearly 16.4 megatons of carbon pollution yearly.

Most likely, bitcoin miners care very little about the carbon footprint of their operations. The price of bitcoin stabilized last year, and as long as the new “coins” can pay the electricity bills, they are happy to continue.

Sustainability is a must

Energy efficiency is not an option; it is critical to achieving net-zero targets and sustainability, experts say. Organizations must step up energy-efficiency actions and take them to the next level.

While digitalization, wireless technologies and cloud computing help to reduce the overall power consumption and emissions of many industries, it will matter only if economies continue to increase the production of non-essential consumer goods and services.

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