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Energy sustainability in data storage will be a hot button issue in the decade ahead

(Image credit: Image Credit: Welcomia / Shutterstock)

The news at the start of 2020 has been dominated by the Australian wildfires and many asserting climate change as a major contributing factor to the disaster. Such events are becoming more common and as they do, businesses will face louder demands to commit to sustainable development and to reduce their carbon footprint.

In the context of this growing issue, it can be surprising that for many organisations the production, storage and use of data is going under the radar as a sustainability issue. In outsourcing their data storage to cloud providers, many organisations have outsourced their sense of environmental responsibility by moving data energy consumption off of their books and on to their supplier’s. But this is a misguided mindset that could create further problems in the future.

Data consumes large amounts of energy and must be factored into CSR strategies of a business. Companies need to take the time and due diligence and work on ways to improve their data storage efficiencies. The more businesses opt for green hosting providers like Memset, as opposed to running inefficient mini data centres in their basements, the more they can actually contribute towards using green resources for electricity production and compliance.

Too often business leaders assume that their cloud suppliers are adopting sustainable practices or do not consider it as part of their selection criteria. However, they have a duty to consider cloud suppliers for their commitment to environmental sustainability. By failing to do so, they will make themselves a target for employee activism, risk reputational damage, and make their other CSR efforts seem just cosmetic.

A lot of improvement has taken place in data centre energy efficiency over the last 20 years. The development of benchmarking tools like the PUE metric has enabled data centre managers to understand their energy efficiency and make improvements using industry-established maturity models.

Data sustainability as an HR matter

The use of cloud computing has also brought efficiencies. The cloud has improved the environmental economies of scale because it is more energy efficient to have larger data centres than smaller ones. Furthermore, the concentration of energy use in larger data centres run by cloud businesses, means these organisations face a very large energy bill as part of their operating costs. This has created a powerful economic incentive to reduce energy consumption wherever possible. Finally, the cloud has encouraged many organisations to move away from a reliance on their often-aged server rooms. Legacy servers, ignored for years, are incredibly energy inefficient.

The downside to this is that greater efficiency in energy consumption has enabled big cost reductions to store data, which has in turn increased capacity and demand to create more data. Innovations including the internet of things, 5G networks and ever-richer forms of content are all pushing the increase in data use too. This means that no matter how efficient we get at storing data, the carbon footprint will still only increase. In the long-term the only way to make data sustainable is to rely more heavily on renewable energy sources.

Data sustainability is not just an issue for the bottom line and energy efficiency, it is also an HR matter. A growing number of employees are concerned about the carbon footprint of their workplaces. This is likely to become a significant issue for the cloud industry and 2020 has already seen its first clash. Amazon Employees for Climate Change Justice is a group of the company’s workers who ‘believe that it’s our responsibility to ensure our business models don’t contribute to the climate crisis’. On 2nd January the group went public, claiming that Amazon has threatened to fire some of them for speaking out on environmental issues. Outspoken employees pushing the CSR agendas of their workplaces is going to be an escalating issue in the near future and this will not only be an issue for cloud providers, but also for all organisations that store data.

Adaptation is much needed

Despite the challenges, becoming a carbon-neutral business is achievable. No doubt hyperscalers like Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM have bigger resources available, but even small cloud providers can become carbon-neutral by adopting a combination of ‘green’ suppliers and a mix of mains and solar power energy. I have been associated with the UK's first Carbon Neutral Web host since 2006. With servers central to our business, Memset has a constant turnover in its asset pool. Where possible, we reuse and reallocate servers to reduce waste; but only if they pass stringent quality checks. Taking a leaf from us, other cloud vendors can also start small by implementing changes like paperless office, encouraging flexible and remote working for staff, cycle-to-work schemes, all of which goes a long way in reducing overall carbon footprint.

Regardless of what your views may be regarding climate change and activism, the reality is that businesses need to adopt a more sustainable and carbon-neutral approach for their own future. If a mid-sized company like ours can adopt renewable strategy and provide carbon-neutral hosting services for a decade, then everyone can. Just make sure you are looking for the right partners!

Annalisa O’Rourke, Chief Operations Officer, Memset