It’s easy to view something as abstract as the cloud as a shapeless, invisible entity floating through the internet’s endless expanse. But its technological capabilities come at a price. As convenient as the cloud makes our lives, the physical cloud infrastructure that’s 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 number 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 how data storage impacts the environment, as well as some measures we can take to reduce the harmful effects of data storage.
What is data storage?
In the computing world, data storage refers to the digital recording and saving of files and documents for future use. This can take place on physical hard drives, disk drives, USB drives or, of course, in the cloud, and requires enormous amounts of computing power to maintain.
Why is data storage important?
Data storage is important for a variety of different reasons. We’ll take a look at some of the more prominent examples below:
Greater operational efficiency
Through streamlined organisation, automated processes and separate folders, your employees can easily search for whatever they’re looking for. And when processes are smooth and intuitive, it contributes to more efficient operations.
Easy access to data
When it’s stored on your premises, employees can easily access data whenever they’re working in the business’ offices. And as remote working increasingly becomes the norm, cloud-based storage broadens this accessibility, allowing employees to access data any place at any time.
Greater protection of data
Digital data storage provides advanced security measures to keep your most sensitive assets under lock and key. And since businesses are duty-bound to comply with regulatory standards for data handling, processing and storage, it certainly pays to keep this data as well-protected as possible.
Potential for scalability
As a business grows, so too does its data volume. By opting to store data on servers, network drives and data centres, you can store vast amounts of data easily.
By going with the cloud route, you can store data without the need for on-premises servers too, providing a more cost-effective option that avoids the set up and management costs associated with physical hardware.
Less vulnerability to data losses
When you have a digital data storage system in place, you’ll have either local or cloud backup which duplicates files you can restore back to their original place should you experience data loss.
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 is created by equipment designed to keep things cool. And if the data centre’s natural climate is on the warmer side, then this number grows to a massive 80%.
So, is the solution to move all the world’s data centres to cold countries? Obviously, such a task would certainly be a challenge, but it’s believed it would help cut emissions.
Attempting to test the theory, Google opened a data centre in Hamina, Finland in 2009. Since then, the tech giant has funnelled an additional €600 million into it to improve its eco-credentials. The company now operates 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 that 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 their electrical consumption either. The coolants used to prevent overheating are often made of hazardous chemicals, while the battery backups at data centres (which are needed for power shortages) can also wreak havoc on the environment, due to unsustainable mining and the irresponsible disposal of toxic batteries.
Is Bitcoin bad for the environment?
It’s not just computing services that are costing the earth; Bitcoin is another major development that’s said to be affecting climate change. Companies around the world have set up data centres replete with computers to do the guesswork that Bitcoin requires.
For the uninitiated, Bitcoin generates new units of its digital currency, and allows transactions to go through, by solving complex mathematical puzzles. The specialised hardware needed to do this chomps through vast amounts of electricity, creating a sizeable carbon footprint as a result. And the “miners” willing to run these machines have only grown exponentially as Bitcoin’s popularity continues to grow.
In May 2021, China cracked down on its miners, taking out 50% of the hashrate (the collective computing power of miners worldwide) as a result. Although this slashed the cryptocurrency’s environmental impact practically overnight, miners went in search of the cheapest sources of energy to make up for lost time – and these resources aren’t exactly renewable.
Take neighbouring Kazakhstan, for instance. It’s now just behind the US in terms of its share of the global bitcoin mining market. It’s also a country replete with coal mines. Cheap and abundant with energy they may be, but they also create enormous amounts of CO2 emissions.
Bitcoin isn’t alone in its effects on climate change either; many different cryptocurrencies have their own footprint. And if they’re utilised as a currency more and more, then these emissions are sure to increase.
How to reduce your 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 carbon footprint of your organisation’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 deleted 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 certain 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 – staving off environmental impacts in the process.
CDL is one of the UK’s leading IT disposal companies, working to help private and public businesses safely retire and recycle their outdated IT assets. To find out how we could help your business, or for more of the latest tech news and advice, visit our homepage or call our team today on 0333 060 2846.