A lot of people are surprised to find out just how big the carbon footprint of a single data centre can be. It’s understandable, really. Computers are ever present in our society, but they don’t give off noxious fumes or spew out harmful gases like our buses and cars do. It’s easy to forget that even a home computer can eat into electricity bills in a big way. It’s just something that we tend not to think about because, well – computers are a necessary part of modern life.

Yet, this attitude can be only be excused for so long. The thousands of data centres dotted about our country are responsible for a staggering amount of unsustainable energy usage. The sophisticated cooling systems needed to maintain optimum operating temperatures are one of the biggest culprits. These systems rely very heavily on unsustainable forms of energy, but things are slowly starting to change.

Data centres around the world have started to wise up to the ecological cost of keeping external IT networks cool and comfortable,. This is a huge issue for the industry – it’s especially important for IT providers in countries like India, Australia and Africa. These countries don’t have a climate like ours, they can’t rely on natural temperatures to maintain optimum operating conditions. In order to keep IT systems ticking along, an efficient cooling system is necessary.

Fortunately, technological experts continue to come up with possible solutions to this dilemma. Free cooling and water cooling are two such solutions – they both work by changing and harnessing the temperature of natural sea water. Google is just one of the industry behemoths that have invested large sums of money in these new systems. The company has an installation in Belgium that uses a water cooling system, as well as another installation in Finland that uses a free cooling system.

According to the experts at Econocom.com, a free cooling system uses external air temperatures to chill water. This water is then used to lower the internal temperature of data centres. Depending on the features and architecture of a particular centre, an ecological free cooling system can save a company up to 35% on its energy bills.

However, this isn’t a perfect system just yet. Whilst this ecological version is in operation, 20% of a data centre’s cooling system is still provided by a traditional air conditioning unit. For now, this option tends to be used in temperate climates only. Fortunately, the free water alternative is a lot more efficient. Instead of relying on naturally cold air to cool IT systems, cold sea water is used to lower the temperature of heat exchangers and disperse the heat generated by servers.

Neither of these cooling systems are completely perfect – they’re at the forefront of an ecological movement that will, hopefully, get better and better. For now, they’re a great alternative to conventional cooling systems and are slowly. It’s about time that the world’s multi-national corporations began to confront their impact on the planet.

Google is leading the way, but it remains to be seen whether any more big companies will follow. It seems to be the smaller data centres that are most keen to get involved.

Even if environmental factors aren’t the thing that drives these companies, the planet will still benefit from their attempts to save energy, time and money. The problem is that ecological technology is expensive right now. In the future, it will be widely available and cheap to buy because we’ll all be using it. Yet right now, it’s expensive and only companies who are truly dedicated to environmental change are willing to bite the bullet and take a leap of faith.