Microsoft details plans to slash water use at its data centers

It hopes to save around 5.7 billion liters each year as part of plans to become 'water positive' by 2030.

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Ahead of the UN's COP26 climate change conference, which starts on Sunday, Microsoft has revealed more details about its plans to make its data centers greener. Among those is a goal of reducing the amount of water its data centers use by 95 percent by 2024 — around 5.7 billion liters each year.

Data centers often use water to keep servers cool. Microsoft has researched server performance at higher temperatures and found that it's able to "create higher set points for a variety of different climates for when water-based, evaporative cooling is necessary to preserve server performance and reliability," as Noelle Walsh, Microsoft's corporate vice president of cloud ops and innovation wrote in a blog post.

The company says this project, which it expects to be fully implemented by 2024, could completely eliminate the need to use water for cooling in locations such as Amsterdam, Dublin, Virginia and Chicago. It may reduce water use in desert data center locations (like Arizona) by up to 60 percent.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continuing its research into liquid immersion cooling to reduce its dependency on water. The company says that, this year, it became the first cloud services provider to run "two-phase liquid immersion cooling in a production environment." It's been looking into overclocking as well and found liquid cooling can increase performance of some chipsets by 20 percent.

"Because of the efficiencies in both power and cooling that liquid cooling affords us, it unlocks new potential for datacenter rack design," Walsh wrote. "In short, liquid cooling paves the way for more densely packed servers in smaller spaces, meaning increased capacity per square foot in a datacenter — or the ability to create smaller datacenters in more strategic locations in the future. This adds to the benefits of waterless cooling design."

Last September, Microsoft announced plans to become "water positive" (i.e. to replenish more water than it uses) by 2030, and these data center efforts will be a key part of that goal. It also aims to be carbon negative by the end of the decade by removing more carbon than it emits. By 2050, the company plans to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it has generated since it was founded in 1975.

In addition, Microsoft says it's designing data centers with local ecosystems in mind "to renew and revitalize the surrounding area so that we can restore and create a pathway to provide regenerative value for the local community and environment."

It's attempting to use more environmentally friendly processes in designing and building data centers to reduce its carbon footprint. The aim is to use building materials that reduce "embodied carbon," or emissions linked to materials and construction during a building's life cycle. Concrete and steel are said to be major contributors of such emissions. Microsoft says it has found ways of reducing embodied carbon from those materials by up to 60 percent.

Elsewhere, the company has opened up a public preview of a tool called Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability to help companies and other organizations record and report their carbon emissions. The tool will also offer suggestions on how to reduce emissions. Earlier this month, Google announced similar features for its Cloud Platform customers.

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