Storage consumes a tremendous amount of power at a time when customers are looking to cut costs. Storage vendors are responding with new platforms and programs that look to address not only cost concerns but environmental concerns as well.
By 2025, data centers may consume more than 3% of global electricity, according to Steve McDowell, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. Of that number, storage contributes up to 30% of a data center's total power consumption.
"The math works out to storage consuming about 1% of total global energy consumption," McDowell said.
IT leaders and their vendors are paying attention. A recent survey from Forrester Research found that the majority of IT leaders have sustainability goals and are looking down the IT stack to assess their technologies -- from on-premises storage to the cloud, according to Abhijit Sunil, an analyst at Forrester Research.
"Storage [vendors] are bringing out more platforms and new technologies that will make storage less energy consuming and, therefore, more sustainable," he said.
But now customers are wading into murky economic waters, and it's unclear how they will affect sustainability initiatives. IT may fall back to keeping the lights on, or they may restructure their arguments to emphasize how investing in energy-efficient technologies can cut costs.
Another factor customers will have to manage is the varying sustainability messages from storage vendors. All assert that their products have a strong environmental story to tell but often through a very specific lens.
Flash saves power and density
Each of the three main types of storage -- flash, HDDs and tape -- could provide environmental benefits to a company depending on how a customer looks at the technology. Flash vendors bring low power at high performance and long lifecycles. HDDs bring high density at a low cost resulting in less power needs overall. Tape uses little power at high densities.
As one of the main elements of IT, storage often sits on the sidelines; that is its purpose, according to Mukesh Ranjan, an analyst at Everest Group. But it also uses a disproportionate amount of power.
"[Vendors must] ensure that the technology is efficient [and] decreases overall power consumption while increasing performance and capacity," Ranjan said.
When it comes to energy, customers should consider not just the amount of power storage uses but also the rising costs of energy, according to Chris Evans, an analyst at Architecting IT, an analyst firm based in the United Kingdom.
"Power has gotten more expensive, especially here in the U.K.," he said. "If companies want to do a refresh or an update, they want [hardware] that is going to be efficient."
Pure Storage and Vast Data -- two major all-flash vendors -- have recently started emphasizing the energy efficiency offered by SSD technology compared to HDDs.
In 2022, Pure released its first environmental, social and governance report that noted its flash storage consumes about five times, or 80%, less energy than other flash vendors due to its denser design.
"Even small reductions in power are significant when you think in terms of the large scale [flash storage] is deployed," Ranjan said.
Vast Data has made a similar argument around flash power savings. In its own 2022 sustainability report, Vast stated its high-density SSDs use about one-third of the watts per terabyte compared to 20 TB HDDs. It also claims its flash has double the lifecycle of HDDs, extending hardware replacement cycles.
Vast's report compared an all-flash 5 PB Vast Universal Storage cluster with a hybrid 5 PB cluster Dell EMC PowerScale H500 (Isilon). In kilowatt hours (kWh) per year, Vast clusters use 44,443 kWh compared with the Dell's 440,910 kWh.
The argument that flash is more energy efficient than HDDs isn't new. Flash offers higher performance at a lower power draw, whereas HDDs have offered lower acquisition costs and higher power use. But Pure and Vast are highlighting this aspect of flash and introducing new programs and incentives for customers.
In September 2022, Pure released a new sustainability assessment feature as part of Pure1, its data management as a service offering. The feature assesses a customer's storage appliance energy consumption and carbon output and recommends how to lower both.
Vast is taking a different route with a sustainability guarantee, where Vast will pay the difference in carbon offset credits if a customer could have saved energy with someone else. The guarantee covers primary data storage only.
HDDs have a place in sustainability
Older storage technologies, such as HDDs and tape, are bringing their own sustainability features to the table. For HDDs, customers should consider a whole life assessment when it comes to power usage, according to Xiaodong Che, CTO of the HDD business unit at Western Digital.
"From an I/O point of view, flash storage is more efficient. But it takes much more energy to manufacture SSDs than HDDs," he said.
Abhijit SunilAnalyst, Forrester Research
In December 2022, Western Digital released its own sustainability report to show its progress with reducing power usage and emissions. The report highlighted that its manufacturing process has reduced emissions by nearly 40% since 2017. The vendor has also both reduced its energy usage when making products by 13% in the last two years while using more renewable energy at the same time.
HDDs can offer a different total cost of ownership (TCO) argument as well, according to Ravi Pendekanti, senior vice president of product management and marketing for HDDs at Western Digital. Rather than focusing on the energy savings from a single device, he suggests customers look at the savings 26 TB HDD can provide in terms of fewer arrays, racks and power consumption overall -- even within its own product line.
"Going from 20 TB to 26 TB will save users a lot of power, as it is getting more expensive," Pendekanti said, comparing Western Digital's 20 TB to 26 TB HDD drives it released in 2022.
Jeff Fochtman, senior vice president of business and marketing at Seagate, agreed that looking at the manufacturing of storage makes for a more compelling HDD sustainability case. "You have to look at the raw materials and manufacturing process, where most of the emissions are driven," he said. "Then you would look downstream to power and TCO utilization."
He also noted that just comparing the two media types may not be as useful as figuring out how to use them in conjunction as they bring different benefits around density, performance and power usage and different storage tiers are needed for different use cases, he said.
What's old is new again
Tape, particularly LTO, has its own sustainability spin to add to the mix. Tape doesn't use power unless it is being written to or read from, which could reduce carbon emissions by 6.5 times, according to recent research from Enterprise Strategy Group, a division of TechTarget.
The fact that tape is inert when not in use is important, but so is its density, according to Christophe Bertrand, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. Tape has continued to increase density in the same form factor over the years, which the LTO Program is planning to reach 1.4 PB in about 10 years.
"When you think about environmental costs of a byte of data, the more density you have, the more you can store within a given profile," Bertrand said.
With tape, the more energy a company can save. For comparative numbers, Matt Ninesling, director of hardware engineering at Spectra Logic, said that 1 PB of tape storage uses 300 watts, while 1 PB of HDD storage uses about 3,500 watts.
"When this is scaled up to 50 PB systems, you see a larger benefit with tape," Ninesling said. "With disk systems, with each chassis added, you have to add controllers, expanders and power supplies."
Tape vendors are beginning to focus on sustainability as a selling point. Fujifilm is planning to be carbon neutral by 2040 and has made several steps toward water resource management. Iron Mountain further committed to its 24/7 carbon-free energy procurement. Meanwhile, IBM has released its compact Diamondback tape library that uses less space and less power than traditional tape libraries.
Less altruistic economics
As companies face inflationary pressures and an economic downturn, costs have become an important factor in adopting sustainable practices, according to John-David Lovelock, an analyst at Gartner.
At the beginning of 2022, digital transformation mainly focused on increased revenue and customer satisfaction. As inflation bit into revenue halfway through the year, the focus shifted to cost savings and efficiency.
"CFOs pretty much universally reacted by giving the CIOs more money and saying, 'Would you add to those digital business initiatives, making departments more efficient or effective?'" Lovelock said.
Companies can both save customers money through sustainability initiatives, and receive good press for doing so, Lovelock said.
Not only that, but as sustainability starts to show up in proposal requests from large companies, energy savings can be a competitive differentiator, Moor Insights & Strategy's McDowell said.
"Technology providers aren't naturally altruistic," McDowell said. "Everyone has a profit motive."
But investing in technology that reduces costs and reuses resources may make more financial sense when companies aren't facing a rocky economy.
"When things get a bit tough, you have to start looking at cost efficiency and longevity of a platform," Evans said.
Adam Armstrong is a TechTarget Editorial news writer covering file and block storage hardware and private clouds. He previously worked at StorageReview.com.