China’s Tech Giants Are Trying To Make Their Data Greener

For end users, it’s easy to forget how much infrastructure is required to support the invisible magic that is cloud technology.

In reality, the cloud is made up of industrial-scale warehouses packed with backup generators, air conditioners, and data centers, where servers and other storage equipment are kept. In China, these data centers occupy a total of about 2.35 million square meters*, an area that is expected to expand to 3.27 million by 2019, according to DatacenterDynamics (DCD) Intelligence. On top of that, each data center requires electricity – a lot of it.

“In operational costs, electricity is the most expensive,” says Pan Dong from Guofu Guangqi (国富光启), a Shanghai-based PaaS and IaaS company. “Why are China’s telecom companies willing to go to Inner Mongolia and Guiyang? Because the electricity is cheaper.”

At DatacenterDynamics’ annual conference in Shanghai on Wednesday, experts from different tech companies, including Huawei, Telstra, and Intel, shared insights on the data center industry. Though U.S tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, have a head start when it comes to building and maintaining data centers, China’s tech giants are certainly catching up, especially when it comes to energy efficiency.

“Chinese colocation [providers] are good at energy efficiency,” says Dedric Lam, the CEO of DCD Group Asia Pacific. “In general, [they’re] better at energy efficiency than the average global colocation provider.”

Colocations are shared facilities for data centers that are managed by a service provider. In China, about 70% of colocations belong to telecommunications companies like China Telecom and China Unicom. Because China started building data centers after the U.S, their equipment is newer, says Mr. Lam. That’s partly why data centers in China are more energy efficient and have more optimal PUE (power usage efficiency) numbers than the global average.

“China is a maturing market – the age of our data centers is, in general, younger. They don’t have the problem of legacy infrastructure as much,” he says.

Chinese tech companies, such as Tencent and ZTE, are also investing heavily in green solutions, optimizing their PUE to levels close to or superior than those of Facebook. In 2011, Facebook launched its “Open Compute” server, a customized piece of hardware that the company claims is 38% more efficient to build and 24% less expensive to run than other servers on the market.

In May, both ZTE and Tencent partnered together to create what they claim is the world’s most energy-efficient data center, Tencent West Lab. The data center is made up of smaller data centers known as “T-blocks”, short for “Tencent blocks.”

“T-block changes the traditional data center into something standardized and modular, then we can stack those blocks in fields,” says Sean Zeng, a data center architect at Tencent. “It takes less time for construction and is very convenient for us to expand or scale it.”

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Tencent and ZTE’s “T-block” data center

Because T-blocks are smaller than traditional data centers, they can be pre-fabricated and transported to the data center site, saving time and operational costs. According to Mr. Zeng, T-blocks are very sensitive to location, as they are designed to leverage their surrounding environment to cut costs.

“Location is very important for T-blocks,” he says. “In central and western China, for example, there are some advantages in terms of climate.” In Inner Mongolia, for example, T-blocks need to be customized for the province’s freezing winters, and can take advantage of the region’s abundant sunshine and moderate humidity.

In addition to T-blocks, ZTE and Tencent’s Tencent West Lab makes use of solar power and indirect evaporative-free cooling technology, which is five times as energy efficient as traditional air-conditioning systems, according to ZTE. Other companies, such as IBM and Delta, are also investing in their own micro modular data centers as part of a global trend to cut costs and improve energy efficiency.

For China, improving the energy efficiency of its data centers will be imperative. At the moment, only about half of China’s massive population is online. As that other half gains access to the internet – or as existing users’ needs grow more demanding – China’s data centers will need to grow and expand sustainably.

According to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), as of 2015, China had over 400,000 data centers. Though China’s colocation centers are relatively energy efficient, overall, China’s data centers are less green than the global average. The Chinese government has already started setting benchmarks for energy efficiency, and is working with tech companies to lower their energy consumption. In 2015, for example, MIIT and the National Energy Administration (NEA) released a plan to launch one hundred green data center pilot projects by 2017, with energy consumption rates at least 8% lower than the national average by 2017 (link in Chinese).

*This estimate refers to the ‘white space’ in data centers, a term that describes the amount of usable area in a data center.

Image credit: Shutterstock, Tencent Data Center