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Perspective: Awakening the Sustainability Mindset


David McCabe


On January 20, 2021, the PMI-SFBAC group hosted an information session on Data Center Sustainability, focusing on water and wastewater impacts, with guest speaker Dave McCabe.  Of course, Data Centers, which many folks simply refer to as “The Cloud,” are central to the technology that touches every facet of our lives.  As a machine planner myself, who focuses on ordering the right hardware to be put on the floor at the right time, I hadn’t had the opportunity to really dive into the technologies around the physical infrastructure itself.  This seminar was a great opportunity to start to do just that.


It is no question that the atmospheric rise of technology, taking us from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, has completely changed our lives and our society in less than a generation.  As someone who both remembers analog phones and who worked in a NOC when cable Internet was a 250-person pilot test, keeping up with the radical pace of innovation is a tall order indeed.  And yet, in this period of observable and undeniable climate change, I feel compelled to learn and understand how the physical infrastructure of this industry impacts our environment.  This seminar stressed the importance of considering water as a resource to pay attention to in the larger picture.




This seminar helped me really understand how all dimensions are connected: power usage, server demands, cooling, water, water treatment, and the environment as a whole.  Specifically, there are some technologies that optimize for water, but cost more power to do so.  For example, while reclaiming greywater for cooling is a compelling case, one must consider the cost of treating said water for impurities before pushing it through the cooling system of a Data Center.  And considering the entire chain of events, using clean sources of power, and/or locating in a favorable climate, can tip the standard Water Utilization Effectiveness (WUE) balance from unsustainable to sustainable.  And sustainability, while also being just simply the Right Thing To Do, is an important metric for marketing and sales for companies.




This brings up some more questions as well: What are the optimal balance of water, power, and other factors that determine sustainability? How is that measured, and how does the definition of “sustainable” change and shift over time? Since Data Centers are rather difficult to change technologies based on shifts and changes in the industry, how do they remain sustainable over time? Even with sustainability, how do all these moving parts affect (positively or negatively) the planet as a whole? I’m looking forward to more presentations to help explore these topics further.



Note from VP of Sustainability: Join us for our next event on February 24, 2021, at 5:15 pm (PST) If You Build It, They Will Come. But Will They Stay? with San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department Community Garden and Urban Agriculture Program Manager Mei Ling Hui.


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