How Sustainable Data Storage Can Reduce Corporate Emissions

Data storage is an often overlooked piece of the sustainability puzzle. Learn how companies are retooling storage to reduce their carbon footprint.

Karen D. Schwartz, Contributor

September 8, 2023

8 Min Read
barefoot footprint made of lush green grass with text CO2

Data storage is having a sustainability moment.

That's because companies are doing whatever it takes to comply with Scope 1 and 2 emissions requirements. Scope 1 emissions are greenhouse gas emissions directly originating from sources controlled or owned by an organization, while Scope 2 emissions come indirectly from the energy procurement or production process. Forward-thinking companies are also preparing for forthcoming Scope 3 requirements, which pertain to emissions from assets purchased from external sources.

Data storage plays an important role in the war against overuse, waste, and depletion. It’s a big target, with the Journal of Cleaner Production projecting that data storage could contribute up to 14% of the global carbon footprint by 2040.

This alarming prediction can be avoided, however. Organizations that prioritize sustainable storage practices can do their part in mitigating the impact.

Schneider Electric, for example, is tackling the storage sustainability issue from multiple angles. While the company has a 3,000-person unit focused on helping other companies achieve their sustainability goals, it is committed to extending sustainability to every part of its IT infrastructure, including data storage.  The company is focusing on improving the sustainability of the storage devices themselves, implementing optimization practices for storage efficiency, and carefully evaluating the choice between on-premise and cloud storage on a case-by-case basis.

While larger companies with extensive resources find it relatively straightforward to embrace sustainability measures, smaller companies face different challenges. One such company is Mid-Pen Housing, an organization that manages affordable multi-family housing units in Northern California. Mid-Pen Housing has grappled with sustainability in its operations, especially when many of the public agencies it works with rely heavily on paper-based processes.

“A lot of the organizations we work with from a funding and regulatory/compliance perspective aren’t really in the 21st century,” said Craig Yappert, vice president of IT at Mid-Pen. “They still require paper records. They can’t even accept digital signatures on PDF files.”

Yappert estimated that Mid-Pen Housing has 1.5 million documents that must be managed, organized, structured, and stored as a result. While the company is working on digitizing its HR records, resident records, construction documents, and funding records, the transition creates new storage problems.

Decision Points

With sustainable data storage in mind, there are plenty of steps that companies can take, regardless of their size, to address the challenges.

Evaluate existing storage technology

Companies can start off by evaluating their existing storage technology to determine whether replacing or upgrading to more efficient alternatives is a viable strategy.

Schneider Electric, for example, is moving away from traditional hard disk drives in favor of solid-state drives (SSDs). Compared with hard disk drives, SSDs can read as much as 20 times faster and write 10 times faster, while consuming a fraction of the energy. Additionally, because SSDs use very little energy, they don’t require cooling systems.

Schneider Electric is also deploying high-performance data processing units (DPUs). “[DPUs] offload a lot of the processing-intensive tasks that have to do with storage and networking from the CPU,” explained Steve Carlini, the company’s vice president of innovation and data center. “[DPUs make] the operations for some applications much more efficient. “

Upgrading vs. replacing storage systems

Sometimes, it’s more about upgrading existing storage systems rather than replacing them entirely. Many storage technologies now have longer lifespans than in the past. Choosing to “rip and replace” may have implications for embodied carbon – the carbon dioxide emissions associated with a product’s lifecycle and its carbon footprint during disposal, waste transportation, and recycling.

Each company must conduct their own analysis to determine the best strategy for its circumstances, said Maggie Laird, head of Lumada software business and corporate sustainability at Hitachi Vantara. Hitachi Vantara both manufactures storage technologies and pursues storage sustainability internally. The company aims to achieve carbon neutrality for Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030 and complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

“If you’re operating with more legacy technology, it might make more sense to extend support for it because they aren’t getting the carbon usage of sending it through the end-of-life process,” Laird said. “But for others, depending on the footprint and data estate, it may make more sense to upgrade to more sustainable, long-lasting storage technology.”

In line with its sustainability goals, Hitachi Vantara did its own assessment and decided to upgrade all its data center equipment, including storage technologies. The upgrade has resulted in reduced energy consumption, Laird said.

Cloud vs. on-premises storage

One of the most valuable, and often most difficult, decisions for companies is the choice between cloud and on-premises storage for specific workloads. Each option has pros and cons.

In on-premises environments, such as data centers, companies have greater control over the equipment, power supply, and cooling systems. However, this also means that companies are responsible for managing Scope 1 and 2 emissions (in addition to Scope 3 at some point). According to Gartner, storage infrastructure typically accounts for up to 25% of data center energy consumption, a figure that could reach as high as 40% by 2030.

So, that makes cloud storage a slam-dunk, right? Not necessarily. While shifting workloads to the cloud does relieve companies of the responsibility for Scope 1 and 2 emissions, it doesn’t guarantee reduced carbon emissions for their data. This outcome depends on factors such as the location of the cloud data centers, their use of renewable energy, and the energy consumption associated with transmitting data over the internet.

Cloud storage can add up to a lot of CO2. According to one source, storing 100GB of data in the cloud produces approximately 0.2 tons of CO2 emissions annually. Nevertheless, many cloud providers today have said they are committed to reducing their carbon footprints. Google, for example, pledges to power its entire global operations with carbon-free energy by 2030.

Deciding between cloud and on-premises storage requires doing a detailed analysis and crunching the numbers. While it can be a complex process, major cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure, AWS, and Google Cloud now offer online calculators to help organizations estimate their cloud emissions when using their platforms.

Hitachi Vantara, for example, is currently conducting a full-impact analysis of the environmental impact of both on-premises data centers and cloud services. “We have workloads in both places, so we are looking at that data footprint on an ongoing basis to drive efficiency and recommendations from both a cost and sustainability perspective,” Laird noted.

Vendor contributions to sustainability

Many storage vendors are also doing their part. According to Mitch Lewis, a research associate with The Futurum Group, companies like NetApp, Pure Storage, and VAST Data are focused on enhancing the power efficiency of their storage devices. Weka, a cloud-based data management vendor, is looking to address energy consumption challenges related to AI.

Additionally, vendors are developing sustainability tools and dashboards for customers to monitor and manage their environmental impact.

Don’t Forget the Obvious

In general, optimizing processes is a great approach to enhancing storage sustainability. For instance, Mid-Pen Housing has transitioned away from storing documents and instead uses technology like Cognito Forms, an online form builder, to create documents from data on demand. The process not only saves on storage but also compute. It also means that the company doesn’t have to worry about versioning and reduces the need for printing resources. Furthermore, it means making smarter decisions when data is actively in use (hot data) and when it can be transferred to less energy-intensive storage technologies, such as tape.

“Performance considerations are important, but now they are overlaid with sustainability, which means you have to get the right data on the right storage and have a good archival strategy,” Laird said. “It’s requiring companies to know … more about how their data is being used. It requires more active management.”

Maggie Laird quote

Maggie Laird quote

Active management also extends to data retention and deletion policies. While some data and documents must be retained for compliance reasons, many companies tend to overdo it. Moreover, companies often enforce a uniform retention policy across the entire organization, even though different departments may have distinct retention requirements. At Mid-Pen Housing, Yappert said he has taken a hard look at the company’s data retention policies. Mid-Pen Housing is now tailoring retention periods based on specific types of documents or the needs of individual departments.

However, for any of these efforts to work, storage sustainability must be a corporate priority, Carlini said. “If it isn’t a priority, you won’t have the buy-in and support you need to make those decisions that on the surface don’t look budget-friendly or a good idea for the company,” he said.

Achieving storage sustainability also involves changing user behavior.

“While the low-hanging fruit may be something like data compression and changing retention periods, it’s behavioral changes on the part of the organization that will make the real difference,” Yappert said. “It’s about driving a huge mental shift.”

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Green IT

About the Author(s)

Karen D. Schwartz


Karen D. Schwartz is a technology and business writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has written on a broad range of technology topics for publications including CIO, InformationWeek, GCN, FCW, FedTech, BizTech, eWeek and Government Executive

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