Making IT sustainable

IEC and ISO join hands to develop energy efficiency benchmarks for ICT

ISO and IEC produce many joint standards which specify how to improve the energy efficiency of information and communication technology (ICT). A number of these publications deal specifically with the excessive energy consumption of data centres. Several UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) can rely on the benchmarks provided by these standards to measure progress.

data centre
Data centres use up a lot of energy (photo: Wikimedia commons author: baltic

We are increasingly reliant on different forms of ICT. Some of us are so addicted to our smartphones and tablets that we have withdrawal symptoms when we have to make do without them. On a macro level, ICT provides a number of tools which help industry and governments to adopt strategies aimed at improving the environment. Powerful algorithms can be used to optimize building resource consumption, for instance. Data generating sensors can enable cities to control the level of lighting they use. Somewhat paradoxically, these power-saving initiatives depend on the computing power generated by large data centres. These aggregated computer networks provide important services such as data storage, backup and recovery, data management and networking. ISO and IEC are working together to solve this paradox. Their joint technical committee (JTC 1) includes subcommittee (SC) 39, set up to prepare standards on sustainability for and by IT.

Power-hungry data centres

Large server networks are big consumers of electricity and generate a large amount of low-level heat. Not only do they require a lot of energy to function, they also need power to run the cooling and air-conditioning devices which enable them to perform at their best. While the heat generated by computing power can be repurposed and used for domestic heating for instance, routine energy management processes are implemented in the data centres themselves to reduce their overall energy and heat consumption.

While some forecasts predict a decline in the number of server factories, as edge and distributed computing solutions become more widespread in the next five years, most estimates expect total electricity demand for ICT to accelerate in the 2020s, partly as a result of the increased power usage of data centres. Jay Taylor, who heads JTC 1/SC 39, agrees. “Despite the recent and significant efforts to consolidate server factories, the fact of the matter is that we have more data centres than seven years ago and this number is expected to continue to grow in coming years. And many data centres already consume as much energy as small cities.”

Helping to meet UN SDGs

SDG 11 aims to make cities and human settlements more sustainable, SDG 12, to ensure sustainable consumption and SDG 13, to take urgent action to combat climate change. All require standardized benchmarks for improving sustainability. That’s where the work of JTC 1/SC 39 can help.

Founded in 2012, the SC initially worked on a global effectiveness measurement tool for data centres, called power usage effectiveness (PUE). “There were a number of organizations, such as The Green Grid or the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC), which were developing specifications for data centres, but they were all going down different routes. That’s how we identified a need for an international standard that could be applied across Asia, Europe and the US,” Taylor explains.

The work on the PUE led to the publication of ISO/IEC 19395 which facilitates the resource monitoring and control of smart data centres. The standard paves the way for the joint or group monitoring and management of the three different resources used in data centres - IT, electrical power and cooling fluids - which are most often managed separately. Thanks to the publication, each server in the data centre can be assessed according to its computing, energy consumption or dissipation aspects, a more comprehensive and energy-efficient way of managing resources than what was previously available.

“I consider it my job to provide practical and usable tools to be able to assess large energy consumers such as data centres. These tools can be then be used to help reduce our impact on the environment,” Taylor says.

Never duplicate!

SC 39 had a hectic year in 2018. It issued nine publications, most of which were technical specifications, part of the ISO/IEC 22237 series. “We developed these specifications based on the EN 50600 standard, published by the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC). EN 50600 gives comprehensive guidelines for the construction and operations of data centres in Europe. My view was that we should work within the framework of the ISO 14000 family of standards on environmental management, produced by ISO/TC 207. For instance, we wanted to include specifications relating to the operation of data centres in areas prone to earthquakes. We received a lot of input from our Japanese colleagues on that aspect. I would describe the ISO/IEC 22237 series as a set of guidelines which provides data centre operators and owners with a practical methodology they can use when they set up in different countries across the globe.”

According to Taylor, collaboration underpins the whole work ethos of the SC. “The first thing I do before we start working on a project is to check whether there are any experts already working in the field and if there are, I make sure I get in touch with them. They might want to get involved with us or they might think that a standard is inappropriate for a number of reasons. We can’t work in a vacuum. I don’t own standards, we collectively do and we all benefit from them.”

Taylor cites several examples: “We collaborate with JTC1/SC 38, which prepares standards on cloud computing, we consult with JTC1/SC 27 on cyber security, you name it…The idea is to not duplicate standards. We were asked to consider developing standards for IT-related electronic product environmental assessment but I turned the suggestion down because colleagues in IEC TC 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems, are already doing that, and have a broader scope than ours. But I certainly would not mind helping TC 111 experts with their work.”

A future without zombie servers

The SC is working on specifications relating to the energy efficiency of server storage systems. Zombie servers, which suck up power without doing any useful work, can be an aspect of some of the less efficient data centres. Although these energy wasters are more difficult to find in the more recent data factories that use a uniform computing architecture and can scale up to thousands of servers, energy efficiency adjustments can be still made. “The idea is to look at which servers are idle and to switch them off at certain periods of the day in order to save energy. Algorithms can be used to predict peak usage, when maximum server power is required. They can shut servers down remotely in off peak periods. One of the problems we have, however, is that unlike your average PC or laptop, servers are never totally idle, even when they are not actively processing information,” Taylor explains.

SC 39 is working to bridge the gap between the increasing use of computing power and the growing requirements for decarbonization. As Jay Taylor  puts it, “We are trying to get equipment to consume less energy while producing useful work which could lead to our overall energy reduction.”