It’s easy to view the cloud as a shapeless, invisible entity floating through the endless expanse of the internet, but its technological capabilities come at a price. As convenient as the cloud makes our lives, the physical cloud infrastructure needed to power it has a huge impact on climate change.
With a bigger carbon footprint than the aviation industry, data centres consume around 2% of the world’s electricity – a figure that’s expected to reach 8% by 2030. That’s because every action we do when online – whether it’s clicking a link, Googling something or streaming a video – is matched to a “piece” of data that’s also linked to a corresponding piece of energy.
As a result, the cloud’s enormous physical data centres require round-the-clock electricity to power its servers, storage and back-up equipment – electricity that’s produced by fossil fuel sources like coal, oil and natural gas. And as the amount of data increases, so too does the amount of data centres and the power needed to run them.
The cloud is undeniably changing the way we connect with tech, but the speed at which it’s growing is bad news for the planet. Here, we’ll look at the kinds of storage which are most damaging, as well as some measures we can take to reduce the harmful effects of data storage.
How does data storage impact the environment?
For data centres to operate, it requires one of two things: to have been built in a country with a naturally cold climate, or to be housed in a temperature-controlled environment that’s maintained at all times.
In terms of the latter, studies have shown that around 40% of the total energy consumed by data centres alone is created by equipment designed to keep things cool. This number grows to 80% if the natural climate of where the data centre is located is on the warmer side.
So, is the solution to move all the world’s data centres to cold countries? Obviously, such a task would be difficult, but it’s believed it would help cut emissions.
Attempting to test the theory, Google opened a data centre in Hamina, Finland in 2009. And the tech giant has since funnelled an additional €600 million into it to improve its eco-credentials, with the company now operating with 100% renewable energy.
Speaking of Google, they’ve been using 50% less energy than the industry average through the use of things such as evaporative cooling solutions, smart temperature and lighting controls, and custom-built servers which aim to use as little energy as possible.
But in countries that require citizen data to be stored close to home on domestic servers, a move to colder climes simply isn’t possible – or legal.
And the environmental impact of data centres isn’t solely limited to electrical consumption. The coolants used to prevent overheating are frequently made of hazardous chemicals, while the battery backups at data centres (which are needed for power shortages) can wreak havoc on the environment. This is down to the unsustainable means of mining for their components, and the disposal of toxic batteries when they’re no longer needed.
Bitcoin and the price of climate change
It’s not just computing services that are costing the earth; Bitcoin is another major factor when it comes to climate change. Companies around the world have set up data centres replete with computers to do the guesswork required of Bitcoin.
Because Bitcoin generates new units of its digital currency through the solving of complex mathematical puzzles, the specialised hardware to do so chomps through vast amounts of electricity and creates a sizeable carbon footprint as a result.
Bitcoin isn’t alone in its effects on climate change; many different cryptocurrencies have their own footprint. And if they’re utilised as a currency more and more, then the emissions are sure to increase.
How can we reduce our data storage footprint?
You don’t need the resources of a company the size of Microsoft or Google to minimise the effects data storage has on the environment. Below are a few different methods you can use to cut down on the carbon footprint of your company’s data storage.
Decide what needs to go
Although you should hold onto things like company financials and personnel records, not all data should be hoarded in the same way. While regulated data should be erased according to the necessary guidelines, most other data can be thrown away after a few years.
There’s a view that data may have residual value, but the cost of storing the data usually far outweighs the need to hold on to information that’s long outstayed its use.
Data lifecycle management
To avoid a build-up of old data, admins should put the right processes in place to prevent excess data in the first place. Almost all data should be erased after a set period of time; anything that is important should be flagged for later deletion or archived on a specific date.
Deduplication is the process of finding and eliminating duplicate pieces of data stored in different data sets, and it’s been shown to reduce the need for storage by up to 90%. Through the process, for instance, you can store a single copy of an attachment that was sent to hundreds of employees.
A well-known example of data reduction, compression involves finding and eliminating repeated patterns of bytes. Well-suited for databases, e-mail and files, it can be included in some storage systems, but you can also use standalone compression applications or appliances to take care of things too.
Policy-based tiering involves moving data to different classes of storage based on things like the data’s age, how often it’s accessed, or the speed at which it must be available. Unless the policy calls for the outright deletion of unneeded data, this technique doesn’t reduce your storage needs but it does cut costs by moving data to less expensive media.
This is the process of setting up an application server to use a certain amount of space on a drive, without using the space until it’s needed. Like policy-based storage, it won’t cut the total data footprint, but it will delay the need to buy more drives until you absolutely need to.
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