The 4 Principles of Sustainable Data Center Design

At Equinix, we’re proud to build cleaner, more efficient data centers

Gary Aitkenhead
The 4 Principles of Sustainable Data Center Design

The modern economy runs on digital infrastructure. To ensure that today’s digital businesses can continue operating sustainably for many years to come, it’s essential for that digital infrastructure to be as clean and efficient as possible.

At Equinix, we’ve long recognized that our customers depend on us as a key part of their sustainability strategies. This is what led us to become the first company in the data center industry to commit to becoming climate-neutral globally by 2030, aligned to approved science-based targets (SBTs)[1] to reduce emissions across our operations and supply chain.

IDC Technology for Sustainability and Social Impact Index – Equinix Profile

IDC presents Equinix’s performance on 150+ parameters across the three pillars of IDC’s TSSI framework for cloud infrastructure and datacenter service providers.

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Since setting our SBTs just over a year ago, we’ve met a number of milestones, aligned with the four key pillars shown below. In this blog, we’ll cover just a few of the many innovations we’re pursuing to make our data centers cleaner and more efficient.

1. Low-carbon energy helps us scale data volumes without increasing emissions

While increasing energy efficiency in our data centers is a top priority, we recognize that energy use is inevitable. That’s why we’ve made it our goal to reach 100% renewable energy coverage across our global data center operations. Achieving this will not only help us shrink our own carbon footprint, but also help our customers green their digital supply chains. In 2021, our renewable coverage was 95%, our highest rate so far.

To help meet our renewable energy goals, we’ve prioritized virtual power purchasing agreements (VPPAs). These VPPAs allow us to acquire large amounts of renewable energy coverage within the markets we’re located in, thus helping us green the grid. We also continue to pursue traditional power purchase agreements. We announced two PPAs with wind farms in Finland during 2022, which will supply Equinix with at least 72 MW of green energy and guarantees of origin to cover our Equinix IBX® data centers in Helsinki.[2],[3] This brings our total capacity under long-term contract to 297 MW.

We’re also working with the Centre for Energy Research & Technology (CERT) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on the world’s first research project to compare the efficiency of proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells and fuel-flexible linear generator technologies. The project will include a holistic assessment of these promising technologies as potential low-carbon power sources for data centers, particularly those in tropical climates like Singapore.

2. Designing for circularity redefines the potential of data centers

The idea of the circular economy—where resources are reused and recycled, in contrast to the linear “take, make and waste” economy[4]—has been around for decades now, and has been applied across industries. However, we believe the data center industry is a particularly good fit for the methods and design principles of circularity, and we’re acting accordingly.

For example, we’ve changed the way we think about heat in data centers. From a linear economy standpoint, waste heat is an unfortunate but necessary byproduct of data center operations. Instead, we’re working to turn that heat into a secondary product that can be resold or shared with those who need it, where possible. We’ve successfully deployed waste heat redistribution projects in several sites across our global footprint. For instance, we’re partnering with a Finnish energy company to redistribute waste heat from our Helsinki data centers, providing low-carbon heating for thousands of homes and businesses.[5]

In addition, we’re working to establish water positivity—that is, putting more water back into the community than our data centers use. Currently, we are actively focused on reducing our water use through more efficient designs—such as onsite fuel cells that consume no water for operation—and through water recovery and greywater recycling systems. Our innovations have helped us avoid 118 billion gallons of embedded water usage, while our use of fuel cells saves 37 billion gallons of water annually.

One example of how we’re putting circularity into practice while providing “co-benefits” to local communities is our new PA10 data center in Paris. The data center will feature a rainwater capture system and a rooftop greenhouse with an innovative hydroponic system. The greenhouse will use rainwater to grow fruit and vegetables for the local community, all while using less water for irrigation than traditional methods.

3. Working smarter toward greater efficiency with software optimization and automation

One of the key requirements of reducing energy waste in data centers is knowing exactly where waste occurs.

Equinix has emerged as a leader in this area of sustainability. We’re deploying software-optimized data center systems to enable power optimization strategies. One example of this is our partnership with VPS and Natron Energy, where we’re pairing software-defined power with cabinet-mounted battery energy storage. This new solution will help manage power draw and limit power stranding to near 0%. We estimate this could improve power efficiency within data centers by 30-50%.

Like sustainability strategies, artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) have emerged as key future-proofing priorities for IT. In the GTTS, 74% of IT leaders identified deploying AI as a key part of their organization’s technology strategy. With both sustainability and AI/ML playing an essential role in the future of IT, it only makes sense to use them together.

With AI algorithms, automated data centers can take in key data points, use them to accurately predict sustainability metrics under specific scenarios, and optimize operations accordingly. These algorithms can also be used to automate power-aware workload orchestration—that is, balancing demand for power and scheduling workloads based on when renewable energy is available.

4. High-efficiency cooling helps limit energy waste

Data center efficiency is measured using power usage effectiveness (PUE), which compares the total energy used by a data center with the portion used specifically for IT equipment. To reduce PUE, operators must decrease overhead energy that doesn’t directly power IT equipment. An estimated 75% of that additional energy goes toward cooling systems, which is why high-efficiency cooling is an especially important part of the sustainability equation.

Equinix has made high-efficiency cooling a priority, as demonstrated by our alignment to ASHRAE thermal standards. We’re also implementing high-density cooling methods like liquid cooling, which we’re testing at our Co-Innovation Facility (CIF) in the DC15 data center and have deployed with Equinix Metal® in our NY5 data center. To support emerging technologies that require particularly high levels of power density, liquid cooling delivers where traditional air cooling may fall short.

In Singapore, our SG5 data center deploys a bespoke and innovative surface cooling technology, known as the Equinix Cooling Array, capable of supporting high-density customers while reducing water and power consumption needs.

Another way we’re maximizing cooling efficiency is through optimized airflow management. Rather than allowing hot air and cool air to flow throughout our facilities at random, we use physical barriers to restrict cool air to supply aisles and hot air to exhaust aisles. By ensuring optimal distribution of cool air, we’ve been able to keep our PUEs low, even in warmer climates like the Middle East, where cooling IT equipment can be especially difficult and energy-intensive.

Get a closer look at the Equinix sustainability strategy

In this blog, we’ve only scratched the surface of the Equinix sustainability story. In fact, the story is  being written every day. One year on from first adopting SBTs, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, but we’re certainly not stopping anytime soon.

To learn more about how the industry analyst community views the Equinix sustainability strategy, read the IDC Sustainability Index Vendor Profile for Equinix.

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Watch my Equinix Hot Takes video, where I talk about sustainability in the data center industry, and how Equinix is redesigning our data centers to be cleaner and more efficient.


[1] The Science Based Targets Initiative

[2] Data Center Dynamics, “Equinix signs 30MW+ wind PPA in Finland.” Dan Swinhoe, January 10, 2022.

[3] Energy Global, “Neoen and Prokon sign second PPA with Equinix.” Abi Larkin, July 25, 2022.

[4] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “What is a circular economy?

[5]Helen and Equinix extend successful cooperation to distribute more waste heat from data centers to properties in Helsinki

Gary Aitkenhead SVP, EMEA IBX Operations
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