Survey: Energy Usage and Staffing Shortages Challenge Data Centers

Elie Byrne
September 20, 2023

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Data center operators say their most pressing management concerns are finding ways to reduce energy consumption and dealing with a persistent IT staff shortage, a new survey by the Uptime Institute shows.

Faced with increasing pressure to operate more sustainably, 33% of those surveyed said they were very concerned with improving the energy performance of facilities, while 30% said improving the energy performance of IT equipment.

Hiring and retaining qualified IT staff was also top of mind, with 30% very concerned about a staffing shortage, followed by 27% who said they were having problems forecasting future capacity requirements, according to the Uptime Institute Global Data Center Survey 2023, released in July.

“In 2023, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have receded, but other challenges have emerged,” said Andy Lawrence, Uptime Institute’s executive director of research, in a statement. “Digital infrastructure managers are now most concerned with improving energy performance and dealing with staffing shortfalls, while government regulations aimed at improving data center sustainability and visibility are beginning to require attention, investment, and action.”

The report surveyed more than 850 data center owners, operators, and nearly 700 vendors and consultants, and found that more organizations are adopting hybrid cloud and moving workloads to the public cloud.

Here's a deeper look at some of the survey’s findings: 

Energy Efficiency Remains Flat 

According to the report, the average Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) for data centers globally was 1.58 for 2023, which is slightly worse than the 1.55 average the previous year.

Overall, average PUEs have remained consistent since 2018, when the PUE was 1.58. The largest efficiency gains occurred between 2007 and 2014 when the average PUEs dropped from 2.5 in 2007 to 1.65 in 2014, according to the report.

Newly built data centers have PUEs of 1.3 or better, and in 2023, 16% of survey respondents say they have PUEs of 1.3 or better.

However, the survey said, the PUEs of older data centers have plateaued as they have already made simple improvements to increase energy efficiency, such as improving airflow management, optimizing environmental controls, and upgrading aging electrical systems.

To lower the PUE further, they will have to either make significant investments to refurbish their existing data centers or decommission them and replace them with newer ones. 

“The increase in silicon thermal design power and the trend towards high-performance IT systems will force major changes in data center design,” the study’s authors wrote. “Future facilities will have to become denser and will most likely need to accommodate a mix of air and liquid-cooled systems.” 

Legrand’s intelligent rack power distribution units (PDUs) provide data center operators with the advanced power quality monitoring and metrics necessary to improve their PUE and bolster their sustainability efforts. 

For example, the new Server Technology PRO4X Rack PDUs offer accurate real-time insights and alerts on the power quality and equipment health at the cabinet level. Real-time visibility of peak and minimum/maximum power measurement values enables data center operators to identify stranded capacity allowing them to use electricity more effectively and sustainably.

Sustainability Metrics 

Data center operators are seeking to reduce power usage because they are beginning to face more pressure from customers and government regulators to report their carbon emissions.

For example, the European Union has recast its Energy Efficient Directive (EED), requiring data centers to report on their energy usage. In the U.S., individual states are considering similar reporting mandates, while the Securities Exchange Commission is considering a climate disclosure rule requiring public companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.

The Uptime Institute’s survey found that many data centers will struggle to meet these emerging reporting requirements and must invest in this area in the coming years. 

In 2023, for example, 88% report IT or data center power consumption, and 71% report PUE, but less than half measure server utilization (40%) and water usage (41%).

Even fewer track their carbon emissions. Only 28% currently measure Scope 1 emissions (direct greenhouse emissions from sources controlled or owned by an organization), and 19% track Scope 2 emissions (indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with purchasing electricity, steam, heat, or cooling).

Furthermore, only 14% track Scope 3 emissions, which are emissions resulting from activities from assets not owned or controlled by the organization, and only 34% track renewable energy consumption.

IT Staffing Concerns 

Data center operators still struggle to attract and retain IT staff as they have for the past decade. But in 2023, their hiring and retention efforts have slightly improved.

This year, 50% of data center operators said they face difficulty in finding qualified candidates for open jobs. That’s 3% better than the previous year but still higher than the 38% who struggled with hiring in 2018, the survey found. 

As for retention, 35% are having trouble retaining staff this year, a 7% improvement from last year but still more than double the 17% who said they had difficulty keeping staff in 2018.

Staff shortages are highest in operations, with 78% reporting that they have shortages in operations, followed by those that have shortages with mechanical staff (28%) and electrical staff (25%).

To improve the talent pool, data center operators should seek workers with applicable skills willing to change careers from other fields. They should also implement training and mentoring programs and invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, the report’s author wrote. In 2023, only 8% of the data center workforce are women.

Cloud, AI, and Server Refresh Trends 

The survey also found: 

  • The percentage of workloads in corporate data centers dropped below 50% for the first time as organizations increasingly adopt a hybrid cloud approach. In 2023, 48% of workloads were hosted in corporate data centers, a 10% drop from 2020.  
  • Organizations are waiting longer to refresh their servers, from an average of 45 months in 2015 to 52 months in 2023. In fact, 56% are refreshing servers every five years or more. In 2015, an increase from 34% in 2015. 
  • 73% of respondents believe that AI-based software tools will allow them to reduce data center operations staffing levels sometime in the future. But it’s not this year, as an increasing number don’t yet trust AI. Today, 76% don’t trust AI to make operational decisions, a 12% increase from last year.  
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