Reducing the Environmental Impact of Data Storage

Facts and insights into the Environmental Impact of Data Storage, and Applicable Techniques to Help Minimize It

By the team at Pure Storage

The rise of digital business has led to an increased carbon footprint. And while a significant focus in the IT industry is on the environmental impact of data centers and cloud storage services, there isn’t much emphasis on the footprint of data storage. Research shows that the data storage industry is growing at 50% annually –a fact that is hard to overlook.

Despite the ongoing improvements in data center installations and storage systems’ energy efficiency, the underlying greenhouse gas and environmental footprint due to data storage is becoming increasingly significant in terms of the overall footprint of IT.

Sustainability revolves around every aspect of an organization’s activities, including strategies, business models, product design and consumption, business operations, supply chains, and disposal methods. In fact, almost 50% of CEOs report that climate change mitigation has a serious impact on their business. Therefore, IT leaders should apply robust principles and strategies when developing their data architecture and strategy.

And since modern consumers care about a brand’s impact on the environment, environmental degradation is no longer associated with industrial operations. The recent rise of data-centric businesses has made savvy consumers more aware of the intrinsic damage of data to the environment. In fact, the modern consumer is 88% more likely to perceive your business positively if you support inherent environmental issues. One way your business can demonstrate the commitment is by reducing your data storage footprint.

Develop a Baseline for Your Carbon Footprint and Implement the Principle

The principle of materiality is critical to any sustainability programs and strategies. Using the materiality principle to guide your environmental sustainability strategy means focusing on the things significant to the company’s impact on the environment and society —before dealing with issues that are important to business stakeholders.

Therefore, it’s imperative to develop a baseline for your carbon footprint to determine whether the data is material. This should include the GHG and energy footprint of the storage infrastructure and any supporting network. If you find out that data doesn’t fit into the materiality principle, it’s best to focus on material items.

Next, you should extend the existing data classification approach to include the materiality principle and determine the footprint of data associated with your process management.

The footprint of your data center can be measured in different ways, but the most efficient method involves determining the amount of data your organization processes. With proper data management, it’s easy to understand how much data your business is responsible for and how it affects the environment.

Host Your Data in Low Carbon Data Centers

Typically, your choice of a data center has a significant contribution to the overall environmental impact of data storage and handling.

The energy efficiency of data centers can vary significantly between providers. For instance, modern data centers are quite energy-efficient, and most hyper-scale centers have a power usage of less than 1.2. On the other hand, company-based data centers can be relatively inefficient. Therefore, the overall efficiency of a data center should be an integral part of the company’s data sustainability program.

Nevertheless, becoming efficient may not be enough to significantly reduce environmental impact since carbon emissions also play a significant role. It’s essential to create a robust strategy for reducing your carbon emission in data centers. Today, business leaders are getting more involved in the creation of strategies that help manage the carbon emissions by third-party service providers to cut costs and enhance operations.

Some of the essential elements of low-carbon data centers include:

  • A great renewable energy strategy, a location in climates where free cooling is obvious, and utilizing an electricity grid with a low emissions factor
  • Continuous implementation of circular economy practices to manage the full life cycle of all IT assets to ensure an end-to-end approach that extends the life of the IT assets to minimize the overall environmental footprint
  • Careful selection of service providers or vendors that provide energy-efficient platforms and have demonstrated superb sustainability practices
the Environmental Impact of Data Storage: Inside a data center with long black aisles of storage
Insights on the Environmental Impact of Data Storage
Photo by imgix on Unsplash

Ensure Optimum Data Movement and Remove Unnecessary Data

It may be pointless to hoard large amounts of unnecessary data unless you need it in the future. The practice of keeping data without a clear usage plan often causes high financial and environmental costs over time. Therefore, it’s vital for IT leaders to develop robust policies that govern data life cycles to filter any data that doesn’t add any value. Ideally, high-value data focuses on solving specific issues that align with business objectives and strategies.

According to a Gartner study, maintaining poor data quality costs businesses an average of $12.9 million annually. Proper data and analytics governance practices focus on the quality of data and the assurance that it is fit to support the business process in which it is consumed. Failure to mitigate data quality issues as they occur often leads to added processing steps in advanced stages. IT leaders should collaborate with other business stakeholders to develop effective data quality programs that drive desired business outcomes without compromising sustainability.

Moving high volumes of data over a network or through the cloud can consume huge amounts of energy which leads to a significant carbon footprint. But you can reduce storage and processing requirements by eliminating data flows that are no longer essential or by shifting from point-to-point movement to hub-oriented integrations.

Alternatively, you can adopt a more sophisticated data integration technique like virtualization, which does not require data movement. By upgrading your infrastructure toward data architectures that maintain data as close as possible to the point of need and adopting distributed programs, your organization can minimize environmental impacts.

Ensure Your Data Providers Are Committed to Environmental Friendly Storage Practices

Cloud storage is an integral part of the modern business landscape, especially with most people adopting remote work schedules. Nevertheless, cloud providers are seldom equal. While some tech companies like Google have made significant strides toward reducing their environmental impacts by focusing on renewable energy, others are still lagging in the race to green energy.

Regardless of the size of your business, storage as a service are an important source of IT infrastructure. Typically, the cloud vendors have clusters of geographically distributed data centers to address customer needs. And while the data centers use a lot of energy, they are popular for their convenience. For most average businesses, these factors often outweigh environmental considerations.

The Cloud storage process involves multiple steps before data gets to its storage destination. Data is first transferred to the vendor, which then re-routes data to appropriate data centers for storage. Sending the information to vendors requires energy to power routers or to access the internet. Most importantly, power is needed within the huge data centers, which often cover huge tracts of land. While Cloud services are convenient since they don’t require any additional space in your business, it consumes a lot of energy.

Implement Tape Storage for Your Cold Data

Cold data refers to any type of rarely accessed data, while hot data is data that is accessed frequently.

Until recently, tape storage was reserved for use by industries that need to retain large volumes of data for a long time, such as video production firms, research institutes, broadcasting and manufacturing, meteorology, and finance. In addition, companies that are at the forefront of becoming carbon neutral, like Google, Baidu, and Microsoft, have adopted tape storage.

Today, tape storage is used in various industries and large corporations, although demand is set to increase in the future as more companies embrace carbon neutrality.

If your organization requires storing cold data for a long time, it’s prudent to adopt tape storage early enough. In the coming years, the demand for the technology will rise steadily among companies of all sizes and among mid-sized cloud providers.

While most data centers have made significant progress in adopting renewable energy and advanced cooling technology, few have optimized their data storage protocols. As such, LTO tapes can be the answer to transforming data centers into green installations.

Invest in Efficient Equipment and Learn How to Use Them

As equipment ages, it tends to consume more energy to remain operational. Continuous technological advancements mean that new and better functioning equipment is available to ensure efficiency.

A large portion of energy consumption associated with the internet often comes from inappropriate use of equipment. For instance, most consumers tend to leave their internet box running throughout the night, thus consuming energy for nothing. In addition, people continue to use 4G while at home instead of their Wi-Fi. Typically, using Wi-Fi consumes less energy than using a mobile network.

Invest in Power Management and Cooling Techniques

Cooling processes account for a significant portion of power consumption in data centers. However, inappropriate cooling techniques lead to high carbon emissions. Cold aisle corridors and natural cooling can have a positive impact on overall energy usage. This is because the technique involves installing servers and other equipment in a sealed aisle with a roof and doors to minimize energy usage.

On the other hand, green companies invest in natural cooling strategies, including using outside air to cool the liquid used in a cold aisle, instead of relying on energy-intensive techniques like air conditioning.

Investing in effective power management systems can help you identify areas that might be causing high energy consumption. For instance, remote sensors monitor factors such as temperature, power, and emissions, thus enabling data centers to get instant notifications when inefficiency issues arise. This ensures simple bugs are fixed before turning into significant energy losses.

The Bottom Line

Good data management practices make it possible to allocate available storage efficiently, and it also helps you to control the total amount of data your business produces. Considering the consistent advice by environmental experts, a reduction is the most effective strategy to slash your organization’s impact on the environment.

In order to minimize your total data load, it’s essential first to understand what data you have. Most businesses are utterly oblivious of their total data volume since they lack the appropriate tools to discover and measure data. The constant flow of data into and out of your systems often means that older files are buried beneath the new incoming data. Therefore, it’s imperative to implement appropriate data management protocols to ensure a minimal footprint and enhance sustainability.