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What sustainable data storage means for your data center

Storage sustainability requires commitment from the entire organization. Don't put it on the back burner -- these tips can help the environment and keep the issue top of mind.

Sustainable data storage is an increasing concern. CEOs, CTOs, stockholders, customers and the public are acutely aware of the environmental liabilities that come with storage, especially as the volumes of data continue to grow.

However, it's not always clear what sustainable data storage means or how IT teams can achieve increased sustainability. Even if they recognize what steps to take -- and not all shops do -- they still face an assortment of challenges.

What is sustainable storage?

Storing ever-increasing amounts of data requires electricity to run the storage systems, route the data between systems, back up and replicate the data, and provide a safe and functional environment in which to manage it.

As they collect more data, organizations need more resources to maintain their storage operations. For this reason, IT teams are under increasing pressure to adopt a more sustainable model for data storage and meet their ongoing business obligations. That pressure comes from consumers, employees, management, board members, stockholders and investment firms. In addition, governments regulate data centers and the amount of resources they consume.

Failing to address sustainability could have a greater effect on the bottom line than the investments needed to become more sustainable.

Sustainable data storage minimally affects the environment and does not contribute to the depletion of natural resources.

In its broadest sense, sustainable data storage minimally affects the environment and does not contribute to the depletion of natural resources. In general terms, organizations can do the following:

  • shift to cleaner energy sources;
  • use energy more efficiently;
  • shrink their carbon footprint;
  • reduce and properly dispose of waste;
  • conserve and recycle water;
  • maximize storage usage; and
  • optimize the physical environment to reduce the consumption of natural resources.

Some think the concepts of sustainable data storage and green storage are the same; however, they are different. Although sustainable and green efforts are both concerned with environmental protection, sustainability also considers the economic and social aspects. It takes into account both present and future generations. IT teams must both protect the environment and support the organization's short- and long-term business requirements.

Many data centers offset their carbon footprints by purchasing renewable energy credits, which enables them to invest in renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power. With enough energy credits, a data center can claim carbon neutrality, even if it continues to rely heavily on electricity generated by fossil fuel. Energy credit use should be part of a larger sustainability effort that also includes energy reduction, water conservation, waste management and other strategies.

Checklist of energy-efficient storage tips

How can we achieve sustainability?

There are several general guidelines for planning a sustainable data storage initiative:

  • Choose the right devices. For example, tape storage works for archival data because it uses less power and generates less heat. All-flash storage is a good choice for data-intensive workloads because SSDs use less power and generate less heat than HDDs. Consider energy efficiency when purchasing storage systems, regardless of the type. Also, potentially replace legacy devices with ones that are more energy-efficient and require less space.
  • Think sustainability when locating data. Do a careful analysis on where it makes the most sense to store your data. For example, some cloud data centers are energy-efficient and have prioritized sustainability. It might make more sense to store some data in an edge environment, such as when processing IoT data. Consider the energy and equipment required to move and route data between environments and to maintain those environments. Factor in the resources necessary to back up and archive data.
  • Optimize resource utilization. Many organizations have storage systems they don't use enough. Where possible, consolidate data, and turn off devices that are not needed.
  • Avoid data waste. As much as 30% of an organization's unstructured data might be redundant, obsolete or trivial. Inventory existing data to determine what it is, where it's located, who owns it, how long it's been there and who can access it. Catalog the data, and use a taxonomy to define, label and group it. Implement a data retention policy.
  • Manage physical waste. Include a system for proper disposal of failed storage components and other e-waste.
  • Modernize operations. IT teams have tools to streamline and automate data and storage operations. One of these is software-defined storage, which can help utilize storage resources more efficiently. Take advantage of advanced technologies, such as machine learning or predictive analytics, to help improve efficiency and resource utilization.
  • Update workflows. Modernization also applies to workflows and applications. For example, implement a more nimble environment that can better respond to shifting workloads and business requirements. Use containers or microservices to streamline application development. Adopt an infrastructure-as-code model to provision storage and other resources.
  • Optimize the physical environment for storage systems. For example, airflow designs affect how efficiently storage equipment can keep cool. Consider the HVAC components themselves, which can vary in terms of energy efficiency and their ability to maintain the ambient climate. Track how the organization uses water and how much of that water it can reclaim for other purposes.
  • Track critical metrics. Tools can track a building's energy consumption. For example, use the power usage effectiveness metric to determine a data center's energy efficiency. Use the carbon usage effectiveness metric to measure the carbon gas a data center emits on a daily basis.
  • Train and educate. The workforce needs to understand the organization's goals, what steps it is taking to reach those goals and how they're expected to participate in the sustainability process.

Many of these steps likely go together with larger sustainability initiatives. As a result, storage administrators need to work closely with IT personnel and others who tackle sustainability.

Challenges to achieving sustainable storage

One of the biggest challenges is a lack of commitment from upper management. Mixed messages and conflicting demands leave IT uncertain about how to proceed. If management gets locked into short-term thinking, it can be difficult for IT teams to get the consensus they need to make a sustainability effort work.

The lack of unified leadership also makes it more likely that the organization will start down a sustainability path and then get turned back as soon as it runs into any bumps in the road. Without effective leadership and a clearly stated policy -- and the resources to back it up -- IT teams will have a difficult time reaching their sustainable data storage goals.

Even if leadership is committed to sustainability, it's easy to get sidetracked by changing business requirements or unexpected crises. A ransomware attack, for example, or unexpected slump in business can quickly cause upper management to reassess and reprioritize their goals. The organization might also lose its sense of commitment if suddenly faced with unexpected costs.

Organizations that want more sustainable data storage must be aware that there are costs involved and that transitioning to new systems and operations can be difficult. With careful planning, however, they can sidestep some of the pain points or at least soften their blow. Sustainability is the way of the future, and organizations that fail to move in this direction are putting their futures at risk.

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