Efficiency vs. Sustainability for Data Centers

Learn why these two separate but related initiatives are both required for future-proofed digital infrastructure

Ivan Benitez
Efficiency vs. Sustainability for Data Centers

Energy efficiency has become an unexpected hero in the colocation industry. If you look back a decade ago, there was very little interest in improving energy efficiency, and very little consensus on where to put it on the priority list. This old paradigm has changed. Getting more “juice from the squeeze” is now considered just as important as getting more oranges.

In fact, it’s become so important that many people now use the terms “efficiency” and “sustainability” interchangeably. In reality, these are two separate but related initiatives. Data center operators must pursue both concurrently to responsibly meet the needs of digital businesses, now and into the future. There are many different natural resources that data center operators should include in their efficiency and sustainability strategies, but for the sake of simplicity, this blog post will focus on the energy used to power data centers.

For a full picture of how efficiency and sustainability complement each other, think back to our metaphor about the oranges. We need to get more juice from each orange, but we also need to allow our supply of oranges to replenish itself naturally. In the data center industry, this means decreasing energy consumption whenever possible, but also powering facilities with energy from renewable sources.

How does Equinix balance sustainability and efficiency?

At Equinix, increasing renewable energy coverage is a key aspect of our sustainability strategy. One way we’re pursuing this goal is by entering power purchase agreements (PPAs) to support new renewable energy projects in locations throughout the world. We’ve emphasized PPAs specifically because they provide additionality—meaning that they add new renewable energy capacity to the grid. Instead of planting trees to grow more oranges, we’re helping “plant” wind and solar developments to “grow” more clean electrons on the grid.

However, no amount of renewable energy production will make a difference if that energy is then used wastefully. Regardless of the source, the cleanest unit of energy will always be the one we don’t have to consume. That’s why data centers must be both clean and efficient to deliver a long-lasting impact.

At Equinix, we recognized this fact early. We started looking at opportunities to make our Equinix IBX® colocation data centers more energy efficient. As our latest annual sustainability report shows, we’re now collecting the fruits of this strategy.

In 2023, our annualized average power usage effectiveness (PUE) was 1.42, representing an efficiency improvement of more than 22% from our 2019 baseline. Going forward, we’ll continue to pursue further improvements; our target is an average annual PUE threshold of 1.30 or better across our global operations.

Why is efficiency so important for data centers?

There are many reasons we pursue energy efficiency; perhaps the most important one is the realization that in a world on a path to decarbonization, our customers rely on us to ensure we’re fully aligned with their strategies. And customers are at the heart of everything we do.

The landscape is also changing rapidly: Not only are customers demanding efficiency, but policymakers from every corner of the world have begun to mandate minimum energy performance requirements and very detailed data disclosure.

Neither of these developments came as a surprise to us. After years of running a programmatic approach to implementing best practices for energy efficiency and certifying our sites to ISO 50001 standards for energy management, we’re well prepared to meet the demands of both customers and regulators.

We’ve also invested in the necessary resources to implement our efficiency strategy and influenced our engineering community to understand that reliability, efficiency and sustainability all belong together. We’ve even incentivized our leadership to prioritize efficiency: We made the bold decision to link executive compensation to PUE performance, among other environmental and social performance indicators.

We’ve succeeded in having energy efficiency conversations in the boardroom and in the plant room. From Canberra to Calgary, we’ve rallied our teams behind a very simple message: Energy efficiency matters, and it’s part of our identity.

How is Equinix driving efficiency improvements?

To achieve efficiency improvements in our data centers, we’ve pursued a variety of initiatives.

Airflow management

We’ve relentlessly focused on optimizing airflow management, which involves ensuring airtight separation between cold supply aisles and hot exhaust aisles. We recently updated our customer installation policies to reflect our commitment in this area.

This may not be an innovative or high-end technology, but it is a recognized best practice that isn’t consistently implemented across the industry. Think of it like taking care of your teeth: Everyone knows that brushing and flossing are important, but not everyone’s willing to put in the time and effort to build good habits. In our IBX facilities, we’re cementing good habits around airflow management.

Wider operating temperatures ranges

In 2022, we became the first colocation data center operator to commit to align our operating temperature ranges to ASHRAE A1 Allowable (A1A) standards. This means that we’ve begun to target a range of operating temperatures as high as 80°F (27°C) in cold aisles, up from a typical industry average of about 72°F (22°C). By gradually implementing higher operating temperatures, we’re able to reduce the amount of energy we use to cool customer equipment.

Liquid cooling

We also see big opportunities in liquid cooling, for the simple reason that liquid is able to transfer heat more efficiently than air. We believe this technology will play an essential role in supporting emerging high-density workloads like AI while still allowing us to meet our efficiency goals. We’ve tested liquid cooling extensively, and we’re now beginning the rollout for production workloads at 100 of our data centers in 45 metros.

All of these initiatives complement each other to enable greater efficiency in our IBX facilities. In turn, these efficiency improvements help ensure we continue to get more juice from every squeeze.

Learn more about efficiency and sustainability at Equinix

At Equinix, we believe that the most efficient, sustainable unit of computing power we can offer our customers is the one that we don’t have to build. When we increase efficiency, we can squeeze more computing power out of each data center. Thus, we can serve customers better without having to build new data centers to do so.

By increasing efficiency and renewable energy coverage, we’re working to build the Future First digital infrastructure platform our customers need. To learn more about Equinix sustainability and efficiency initiatives and the progress we made with both in 2023, access our interactive sustainability report today.

Ivan Benitez Director, Operational Sustainability
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