As South Africans are daily under more pressure because of power issues, there’s a new imperative to lessen the load on the grid. So we need to that ensure data centres and end user computing are as power-efficient and sustainable as possible.

Data centres are big electricity consumers, and this is driving more companies look towards cloud computing as a more sustainable alternative.

Chris Pennington, director of energy and sustainability at Iron Mountain Data Centres, points out that Africa’s cloud computing and data centre industries are growing with hyperscalers already operating major data centres on the continent, while the colocation market is forecasted to grow by a further 25% by 2023, according to a study by Xalam Analytics.

Organisations are embracing cloud computing and more growth is expected this year, according to the Cloud in Africa 2023 study by World Wide Worx. The study found that the majority of enterprises are planning to increase investment in cloud services in 2023 to benefit from improved security, customer service, business efficiency and scalability.

This growth brings into focus the topic of sustainability and the role the data centre and colocation industries can play in supporting it by reducing their carbon footprint. Data centres are getting serious about sustainability and over the past few years providers have added a stack of new propositions, many of them supporting sustainability; efficiency; renewable power; responsible water usage; with the aim of total decarbonisation.

The strides that the industry has taken are impressive, particularly those made by the world’s major cloud service providers, Pennington adds.

Amazon, for example, is now the world’s largest purchaser of green energy and is aiming for 100% renewable power by 2025. For the last five years, Google has matched 100% of its annual electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy. All the leading hyperscalers run highly energy-efficient data centres and are focused on becoming net positive.

The colocation industry has also achieved spectacular reductions in terms of efficiency, water, clean energy, and decarbonisation.

However, he says that, with a mix of customers all running their own IT infrastructure set up, colocation providers can struggle to achieve the same levels of efficiency as the hyperscalers, who run a homogeneous set of infrastructure through entire data centres. However, operators can work collaboratively with customers to ensure they are using the most efficient racks possible.

Pennington points out that, as data has shifted from inefficient legacy facilities to specialist colocation and cloud businesses, energy requirements have dropped dramatically. The industry’s shift to renewables has also had a huge impact.

So much so that, despite the exponential growth in ICT demand, power usage and emission levels have not risen proportionally. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), worldwide Internet traffic rose by 440% between 2015 and 2021, with data centre workloads increasing by 260%.

Locally, internet traffic travelling through the country’s largest internet exchange, NAPAfrica, has jumped by over 500 000% in just over a decade, from 532Mbps in 2012 to 2,9Tbps in 2022.

Comparatively, global data centre energy usage only increased between 10% and 60%. Despite efficiency improvements over the last few years, faster progress must be made if the industry is serious about cutting emissions and achieving net-zero.

But what is driving the industry to do this? Pennington asks. There are three key drivers which are becoming increasingly important as time goes on: growing regulation, growing customer demand for more sustainable solutions, and the fact that it’s good for business and, equally important, the planet.


Growing regulatory constraints

The expansion of the data centre industry will depend on its ability to demonstrate a positive impact on local communities and infrastructure, as opposed to being a burden, according to Pennington.

As the pandemic demonstrated, adopting hybrid working patterns can significantly reduce the emissions associated with commuting into offices, but this new digital world has a vast carbon footprint from electricity generation – an average of 36g CO2 equivalent per MB according to Climate Neutral Group’s best estimates, alongside significant water consumption. Worldwide, it is estimated that data centres consume about 3% of global electricity and account for around 2% of total GHG emissions. These numbers are only increasing, leaving no room for complacency.

Voluntary codes of conduct are now giving way to direct regulation at national and regional levels, with environmental performance legislation in the US and the upcoming EU Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in Data Centres setting the bar far higher. Data centre construction has – at various points in recent years – been put on hold by governments in countries including the Netherlands, Ireland, and Singapore. Maximum footprints, minimum efficiency levels, and obligatory sharing of waste heat are among the new requirements, with more expected, depending on each region’s needs. Data centre operators must therefore stay a step ahead, by exceeding all regulatory requirements across their entire ecosystem.


Supporting sustainability goals makes good business sense

Pennington points out that businesses are getting more serious about sustainability. In response to the climate crisis, companies have started setting aggressive climate goals and the number of businesses committed to these targets is growing faster than ever.

According to BCG, the sustainability movement that has swept the corporate world in advanced economies is now spilling over into emerging markets. Its research indicates that emerging market companies, including South African companies, are responding to intensifying pressure locally and abroad from consumers, employees, trading partners, investors, and regulators to back their green commitments with verifiable actions.

These actions can strengthen companies’ access to international markets, lower their cost of capital, and improve their ability to secure and retain talent.

As an industry that supports our clients’ critical data and infrastructure needs, we play an important role in providing solutions that help companies achieve these expanding goals.

“The next decade will be critical in the battle against climate change, and data centres can play a unique and impactful role in supporting positive change,” Penningtone concludes. “Sustainability can only be improved through cross-industry collaboration with governments, standard-setting bodies, and customers, through thousands of tiny and carefully monitored step-changes.

“Critically, tech companies have a responsibility to educate their customers on the environmental impact of digitalisation and their data storage, so together, they can consume less, even if there’s a need to store more.”


Strengthening data centres against vulnerabilities

Armand van Niekerk, product manager at Eaton Africa, points out that South Africa’s data centre market – the largest in Africa with more than 20 co-location centres – is expected to grow to over $3,23-billion, from $1,71-billion in 2021. These data centres reflect the rapacious demand for data to deliver our information needs, entertainment, and even our very lives.

In some cases, the failure of one of these data centres can be catastrophic.

During Eaton’s recent Data Centre Webinar, experts unpacked just how data centres can be strengthened against vulnerabilities, by sharing best practices in data centre transformation as well as how to design sustainable, secure, and commercially successful data centres that successfully straddle the interconnections between data, electrical, and physical domains.

One of the key vulnerabilities faced by the South African data centre market is the country’s constrained energy supply. Unfortunately, South Africa’s current power crisis is expected to persist almost indefinitely, based on current and projected future available capacity, and relative to the fast-growing needs of homes and businesses.

This places a huge dampener on the expansion of many key growth sectors, Van Niekerk explains. Data centres, in particular, are one of the larger industrial consumers of electricity and water. These two inputs are needed to power, as well as cool down the centre around-the-clock in cycles.

A secure platform is fostered by more than just analysing folders to detect malware threats. Protecting the integrity of data is just as much ensure by controlling the quality of the power that enters and leaves the secure digital environment in which critical processes are located.

An important piece of equipment you will need to invest in is a battery energy storage system, like a UPS, he says. Simply, when base load power cuts off, the UPS battery is connected to the circuit, it is continuously charged, allowing the user enough time to switch the device off properly (for example, saving files on a computer) and wait for the power to come back again.

Furthermore, pairing a reliable storage (battery) with a solar system as an energy source, especially during off-peak tariff periods of the day, will start to bring down energy cost substantially. Should there be enough storage (and sunshine), electricity consumption reaches that much haloed status of being “off grid”, Van Niekerk explains.

Not only does an energy hungry data centre get to cut down energy costs, but they also take advantage of the government’s solar tax rebate for both businesses and households, announced recently to encourage South Africans to go green.

“As a large energy user, the data centre industry is very much affected by South Africa’s current electricity crisis. Addressing its impact – on data centre owners and their customers – requires a greater focus on both the transition to renewables, and how existing infrastructure can be utilised to improve efficiency and resiliency, and to help stabilise the grid.”


Sustainable office equipment

Sustainable energy solutions should be embraced by users at all levels of the IT value chain, as businesses evolve ways to counter the effects of loadshedding, says Epson South Africa’s office automation sales manager Yudheer Harbhajun.

Indeed, he believes that continuing load shedding has pushed business owners into educating themselves about and implementing greener and more sustainable practices within their businesses.

The alternative power supply solutions coming into play range in scale, complexity and cost, from installing battery-powered LED light bulbs to literally keep the lights on, to backup power systems, such as uninterrupted power supply (UPS) devices and power inverters attached to an external power supply like solar or batteries, that can be used to power computers, WiFi routers, and office appliances and equipment.

With fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, being by far the largest contributor to global climate change and accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions, alternative energy solutions – whether employed out of necessity or a sense of environmental responsibility – make a huge difference, he adds.

Energy efficient equipment and systems are the next port of call businesses are looking into, to ensure the power supply they do have isn’t rapidly depleted by high-consumption devices. This might mean swopping out older printer models, for example for newer, more advanced and efficient ones.

“Heat Free technology, for example, uses no heat in the ink ejection process unlike traditional printer models, and delivers lower power consumption as a result,” says Harbhajun. “Aside from it being a good solution to the hassle of load-shedding, opting for more energy efficient equipment and devices is definitely a win for the environment, and a happy consequence of load-shedding in my opinion.

Eco-friendly workspaces have also become the order of the day (albeit, for reasons related more to convenience and access to connectivity, but another happy coincidence from an environmental point of view, nevertheless).

This could take the form of smart hubs and systems, which are on the rise within office spaces, that can be programmed to dim lights and turn off air-conditioning in areas of the office that aren’t in use.

Making use of shared office spaces is another out of necessity and convenience, in most cases, is a huge step towards eco-conscious work environments, as sharing of resources inevitably means less waste. In addition, with load shedding causing incessant traffic jams due to traffic lights going down, many businesses are making provisions for staff to work from home instead of driving to the office, saving the environment from CO2 emissions.


What about security?

One important piece of securing the sustainable future that is often overlooked is cybersecurity. As the world transitions from fossil fuels to green energy, it is critical that renewable energy-powered grids are designed with prevention-first cybersecurity technologies from the outset to safeguard our energy businesses and ensure their viability way into the future.

Check Point Software Technologies recently joined cyber, business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum to publish a Guidebook for a Cyber-Resilient Low-Emissions Energy Transition.

The guidebook details six principles to help energy and government leaders build cyber resiliency into their energy transition journey:

  • Prepare the new energy system structure to meet emerging threats: Recent analysis from Check Point Research found that cyberattacks on global utilities are up 17% this year versus 2022. As isolated, legacy energy infrastructure transitions to digitally networked systems supported by innovative emerging technologies, it is essential they receive a cybersecurity upgrade. Many of the risks can be mitigated by building systems with prevention-first based cybersecurity solutions to prevent attacks from disrupting operations.
  • Invest capital for long-term benefits: Achieving a sustainable world requires upfront investments in clean energy assets and new technologies which can be reaped back over the course of years as they unlock long-term financial and societal benefits. In that same vein, building “secure by design” clean energy systems comes with upfront capital costs, but will reduce the overall risk to facilities, critical infrastructure and supply chains from the devastating effects of a breach or cyberattack. Embedding in strong cybersecurity from the start may also lower insurance premiums.
  • Navigate the regulatory landscape: Cybersecurity is a global risk that crosses borders and industries. Government leaders from the European Union to Japan to the US and beyond are taking notice and taking action. Given the importance of regulatory compliance, it is vital to understand the global and local regulatory and policy environment and how these entities view cybersecurity. International commitments and domestic policies can help guide future cybersecurity needs within the energy industry.
  • Establish cyber-resilient governance for the energy transition: The renewable energy transition is changing the industry’s common business models of centralized energy production and distribution. The new systems will run on distributed generation and producer-consumers who both take and send energy to the grid. The new systems require governance models built on trust – especially when it comes to incident reporting and information. Organizations should design a governance structure that addresses cybersecurity and builds cyber resilience.
  • Build the foundation for an innovative business environment: Energy companies must realize that cybersecurity is a key business enabler to ensure and accelerate business performance, rather than a cost to be minimized. In fact, companies should find ways to demonstrate the strength of their cybersecurity and cyber resilience as a unique selling point to investors, partners and customers. This will allow leaders to create and sustain an innovative business environment that is trusted for business sustainability.
  • Develop strong human capital: With an estimated 3,4-million unfilled cybersecurity positions worldwide according to (ISC)², closing the cybersecurity skills gap is essential to securing our sustainable future. This can be accomplished by first retaining the current cyber workforce and by lowering their stress and preventing burn out. Next, it is imperative that we both reskill and train workers for cybersecurity roles via programs like Check Point MIND and that we educate today’s youth and prepare them for cyber careers via programs like SecureAcademy.

Taken together, these six principles complement the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index’s energy transition readiness dimensions. According to the Guidebook, “the extent to which organisations integrate cybersecurity into their energy transition readiness dimensions and perform on the six principles will determine whether they will advance or impede progress on a low-emissions future.”