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How to reduce the environmental impact of data storage

The Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry and a single data centre can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes.

Blog 18 May 2023

Yes, you read that correctly. 

This staggering fact was one of many presented in an article by Anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, which drew on five-years of research and ethnographic fieldwork in server farms to illustrate the environmental impacts of data storage. According to Monserrate, the electricity utilised by data centres accounts for 0.3 per cent of overall carbon emissions, and this number jumps to 2 per cent if you include networked devices such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

Within the next two years, Amazon, Microsoft and Google will both have opened several large-scale data centres in New Zealand. While this is good news for the country and will mean immense technological, economic, and social benefits, there is no doubt that the impact to our carbon footprint will also be significant.

If you’re imagining rooms upon rooms of computers, you’re pretty much on the money. Aside from the immense amount of cooling/air conditioning required to move heat away from the machines themselves, it’s more to do with the fact that storing increasing amounts of data, moving it between systems, backing up, replicating, and managing data requires significant amounts of electricity. If you add to this the hyper-redundancy required to ensure data centres are always available, this means if one system fails, another is idling in the background ready to take its place and is also drawing electricity, albeit at lower levels.

The growing demand for data, and therefore data storage.

As data becomes increasingly integral to the way we work, operate businesses, and run our lives, the amount of data we need to store is only going to increase. According to Accenture, organisations that invest in data leadership and cultivate data literacy at all levels are growing at more than 30 per cent per year. What this means is that data centre workloads and internet traffic are placing growing demand on Cloud infrastructure, and therefore increasing carbon emissions.

To put this into context, human activity currently adds 118 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day. The Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming within 1.5oC. However, according to Sanjay Podder, Accenture Managing Director and Global Lead – Technology Sustainability Innovation; “If left unchecked, the exponential growth in data has the potential to result in increased energy demand and carbon emissions derailing our net zero and 1.5oC ambitions.”

As our need for data increases, so too does the need for data storage and additional energy resources. And it’s for this reason that sustainable data storage has become a high priority for CEOs globally as volumes of data continues to grow.

What is sustainable data storage?

Like all sustainability measures, sustainable data storage involves the implementation of processes and tools that place minimal impact on the environment and do not contribute to the depletion of natural resources. It’s about processing data more efficiently at every stage in its lifecycle.

Purchasing renewable energy credits is one way to offset carbon footprints, and it’s certainly a good place to start as part of a broader sustainability strategy. However, a frightening fact is that between 70 and 90 per cent of data collected by organisations is ‘dark data’, which is data that is never turned into insights or business opportunities yet still incurs energy costs to store and transmit. Therefore, our focus really needs to be on what we can put in place to reduce or eliminate storage waste, utilise our data in better ways, optimise the way we transmit data and drive greater efficiencies in how we manage our workloads.

Adopt lean principles to achieve sustainable data storage

Lean principles’ is a term often used in manufacturing. In terms of data, it means focusing on eliminating waste while simultaneously ensuring the value in your data is maximised.

Here’s some initial steps you can take:

1. Choose a low carbon data centre

Like a lot of things you purchase, the quality of vendors varies greatly. As part of your due diligence during vendor selection, ensure you interrogate how energy efficient they are. Look for things like whether they have a renewable energy strategy, their location (for example if they are based in cooler climates), whether the energy grid they utilise has low emissions, if they have circular economy practices in place to manage the lifecycle of their IT assets, if they have energy-efficient hardware, and whether they purchase carbon credits.

A note of caution is to be aware of ‘greenwashing’, which is when claims of using only renewable energy sources are made, when in fact there are also non-renewable energy sources being drawn from. This can and has happened even with seemingly reputable vendors.

According to Accenture, public cloud data centres are a great option because they are more likely to run on renewable energy, embrace newer technologies and reach higher levels of infrastructure utilisation.

2. Only store the data you need

As mentioned earlier, dark data poses a significant threat to the environment. That is, unused data that incurs the same costs as data that is used. Even though operating a data-driven organisation is a critical step for success today, it does not mean that hoarding every piece of data is necessary. According to Gartner, maintaining poor quality or unnecessary data costs businesses an average of US$12.8 million annually.

Having a robust data strategy coupled with good data governance practices in place will ensure that the data you collect, and store is valuable to your organisation and fit for the purpose it is intended to fulfil. And that any data that does not match these criteria is not stored unnecessarily. The benefits of having this in place is not just in minimising your carbon footprint, it will also ensure that your data is solving specific business problems, aligns to your overarching strategy and goals, and that you’re not paying to store data that has no purpose.

3. Switch to energy-efficient devices

Do you have legacy devices still in use? There’s a good chance these are not energy efficient and should be replaced with newer options that have been developed with efficiency in mind. But further to this, there may be different devices that are more energy efficient for the tasks you need them to perform.

There are some adjustments you can make that will help reduce your carbon footprint. For example, tape storage can be a good option for archival or cold data because it uses less power and therefore generates less heat. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are also becoming an increasingly popular data storage option because they don’t have spinning discs, which generate heat, and their read speeds are faster than hard discs. When looking at alternative devices, note that there can be some cost and speed trade-offs, but this should be something you consider as part of your wider sustainability strategy.

4. Optimise resources

Optimising resources is as simple as it sounds – ensure that the data storage systems you have in place are utilised to their maximum capacity. If there are systems that are not in use, or not maximised, look for opportunities to consolidate data and switch off any unused devices.

It’s also worthwhile optimising applications and workflows. Creating an agile environment that can nimbly adapt to fluctuations in workflow and business requirements means resources are used only when required, and therefore only draw energy when it is necessary.

A great example of this is with Microsoft, which provides its employees with tools to track their own carbon emissions and delivers recommendations on how to reduce them. Or Google’s carbon-intelligent platform, which shifts non-urgent compute tasks to times of the day where wind and solar energy are plentiful without compromising performance.

Take the first step

Regardless of whether your organisation has mature data practices in place or not, the time to start planning for sustainable data storage is now as the need for data continues to accelerate. Our sister company Data Insight has a team of experienced consultants can work with you to support development and implementation of a sustainable data strategy practice at a pace that works for your organisation.

We offer a footprint sustainability platform, which is a great tool to measure, forecast, and reduce your carbon footprint.

For more information or to have a confidential chat about how we can assist you on your journey to a greener data future, speak to our team today.