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The Carbon Footprint For Data Is How Much?

The Carbon Footprint For Data Is How Much?

Steve Rackham, Senior Solutions Engineering Manager, EMEA Global at NetApp

Something that I hear more and more being discussed is ‘sustainability’ and ‘carbon footprint’.  I have worked with data for a long time, so I am used to conversations about storage efficiencies etc., but I have never really sat back and thought about the impact on the environment that data has.   

Typically, when people start talking about carbon footprints, their conversations quickly go to travel, manufacturing or cows!  It’s only more recently after chatting with a few colleagues and listening to some interesting initiatives some of the banks are looking at, that I have become more interested to understand how much of an impact data has – and that’s when I had the reaction of ‘the carbon footprint for data is how much?’! 

The big difference between data and the other main topics of conversation is that it is much harder to physically appreciate data.  You can travel in cars and airplanes, use the output of manufacturing and a lot of us are still meat-eaters, but data doesn’t have physical mass.  However, it still has to exist somewhere on infrastructure – whether that is your own data-centre, a co-location or a Cloud Service Provider.  So, what’s the problem here? 

Currently, 68% of data that is created is then never used or touched again.  To store that amount of unused data equates to a bigger carbon footprint per year than the entire airline industry combined!   

Businesses are effectively delegating their carbon footprint to public cloud providers. As a result, they are losing track on how much data they are producing and storing in somebody else’s cloud.

This got me thinking from different angles, not just a green perspective.  Are companies storing their data efficiently?  Do companies know what data they have?  Everyone is looking for a competitive edge – how many missed opportunities are there from believing that the information isn’t available? 

With all this data available but having such a large carbon footprint, what should be the top-of-mind questions to consider?

1.      Do you know what data you have?   

With the rate at which we create information continuing to increase, it is unsurprising that it’s becoming a massive task to organise, store and manage our data. However, are we creating data for the sake of creating data that is providing no value?

If you don’t truly know what data you have, who owns it, where is it – and should it be – kept, how can you possibly start to truly know what value you can gain from it or if you are impacting from a sustainability perspective on the best possible way.

2.      Are you storing it efficiently? 

I don’t just mean storage efficiencies such as deduplication and compression but are you using older, less efficient technology.  Where is it being stored?  The carbon emissions needed to build your datacentre are already there – is it better to keep using that or is the cloud a more environmentally sustainable solution? 

If firms are continuing to lease storage space and store data that is not being used properly, this creates a huge cost waste, and it’s using valuable resources that could be used elsewhere.

Have you got, and do you stick to, defined data management policies? In an industry that is so heavily regulated, it can be easy to just keep everything.  Do you really need to do that?  Have you set up (sticking to) retention policies? 

This is one of the most cost and resource consuming activities we are doing, which in turn is having a huge impact on the environment.

3.      What insights can you gain from unused data? 

If you do need to keep it, can you gain better insights to help your business or your customers? When it comes to green IT, just tackling unused data could make such a difference!

By working with technology that can help to identify underutilised resources and eliminate wasted resources, businesses can categorise and clarify the important data. With this level of intelligence, businesses can cut up data in different ways based on customer requirements. This provides actionable insights for organisations to truly make the most of the data they have, and if it’s of no use, it can be archived or deleted.


It’s more important than ever that we are more intelligent with our data. It will be those businesses who are willing to invest in data management, by looking at technologies such as the cloud, who will create more value and as a result, more of a sustainable future.




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