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Sustainability in a world of data - what is being done, and what is not

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks January 9, 2023
it is down to IT vendors and users to create, build and implement sustainable solutions, and the fact that all the current signs say that target such as achieving carbon neutrality are going to be missed is largely down to us not doing enough, urgently enough.

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The data center is an obvious target when it comes to sustainability concerns, and one that is now being addressed with increasing fortitude, if not yet as much urgency as it might. But there are other issues associated with the obvious focal point of reducing data center energy consumption, and they have wider connotations. Some even point to a real need for long term, fundamental changes to the way data is handled in businesses, and indeed, how business practices are conducted in future.

Not so long ago I covered some of the energy/carbon-footprint issues of data centers in an overview of Icelandic data center services. When it comes to carbon footprints Iceland has some tremendous advantages in being located on – and owing its very existence to – a point where tectonic plates are moving apart and greatly shortening the distance to earth’s mantle, providing easy access to almost infinite supplies of heat energy. At 10.5 grammes per KiloWatt/hour carbon released to the atmosphere, Icelandic data centers have a huge head start compared with Frankfurt at 391g/kwh, London at 275, Amsterdam at 378 and Dublin at 321. 

Like most of the rest of the world, those locations have to consume unsustainable energy to move unsustainable energy so that it can then exploited in data centers in an unsustainable fashion. While the so-called 'Ring of Fire’ round the Pacific Ocean might hold suitable possibilities for similar exploitation of local geologies, the accompanying propensity for earthquakes is a stumbling block, so the idea of bypassing the whole energy issue by exploiting such opportunities is very slight, and really won’t solve the global problem. Sustainable, zero-carbon energy sources are, therefore, becoming vital. But equally as vital now is the need to come up with new ways of reducing the rate of energy consumption in the first place.

Companies – both IT users and vendors – are starting to look at both of these problems, but they are, in general, all still well behind the curve when it comes to implementing many solutions. But solutions are starting to emerge and in so doing are opening up on new thoughts and implementations for discussion. One of the latest to do this is Pure Storage, which hosted a roundtable discussion on the subject in London shortly before Christmas. This highlighted not just the obvious issues of data center energy consumption, carbon footprints, and what is to done about them, but wider issues such as what technologies users need to be thinking about for the future.

The obvious gorilla

The humongous – and exponentially growing - gorilla in all this is, of course, data. Estimates suggest, for example, that there will be some 200 Zettabytes of data in storage, globally, by 2025. A Zettabyte equates to 931,322,574,615.48 GBytes (it says in this handy online converter). Averages also suggest that everyone in the world with consistent access to the Internet now engages with a data center every 18 seconds, even if they don’t know they are. This is clearly going to trend towards permanent connection, certainly during the period of time left before the clock runs down on the  goals set at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, in particular the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by mid-century.

If nothing else, the growing penetration of 5G mobile communications is now well underway, with 3G services being terminated about now. Given that 5G significantly extends the capabilities of mobile devices when it comes to business applications, they are going to become the primary link to data consumption – and creation – for the majority of business users. With potential 6G communications services already being explored and mapped out, permanent connectivity is likely to increase the exponential rate at which data is generated.

The key points to emerge at the roundtable included such eye-watering numbers as the estimate that some $90 trillion needs to be spent by 2030, according to the World Bank, in order for the world to become a properly green, global economy. This is important because, according to the World Economic Forum, IT was already responsible for some four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, and that share is likely to get bigger. As observed by James Petter, VP International with Pure:

We've had Brexit, we've had the war on Ukraine, we've got inflation going on. But we also have the consolidation of sky-rocketing amounts of data, increases in energy prices that we're seeing across the world, it's a perfect concoction. That is really meaning we have to do something right now.

So on the basis that you can’t manage what you haven’t measured, the company invested in a survey, working with Wakefield Research Unit. This polled over 1000 director-level sustainability program managers across the US, UK, France, and Germany, and talked about figures generated in the UK. The results identify some important failings amongst businesses that demonstrate that many of the wider issues of sustainability are being ignored. 

For example, 33% of respondents were shown to be not taking the necessary steps to support the organisation's sustainability goals and initiatives, with IT infrastructure often being overlooked. Perhaps more important, 63% of them said IT infrastructure sustainability is likely to be overlooked during the vendor selection process. The survey pointed to the problem here being a serious lack of alignment in business planning and management thinking. This is shown by the fact that in the majority of cases, sustainability managers are only bought in after the technology selection process has begun.

Sadly, that means that any real sustainability initiatives will only find themselves on the table as the next round of technology updates come up for consideration, which could leave many users – and their preferred vendors – well behind the curve. This could have a serious side effect for all of them, in that the trend now is for all businesses to account for their own IT services, and those provide by third parties, as raw materials. This will increasingly mean businesses justifying their own IT costs and carbon footprints to their own customers, plus ensuring their suppliers are at least as carbon neutral as possible.  

The survey also found that 90% of companies cannot reach their sustainability goals without significantly reducing the energy usage, which means cutting operations if major changes to technology platforms cannot be addressed until the next technology upgrade – which could be several years away. It is well known that the Paris Climate Accord, which is an International Treaty binding on 194 parties, committed them to reducing our CFCs greenhouse gases sufficiently to achieve a global increase in temperature of no more than 2oC by 2030. However, instead of companies making moves to cut emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that, rather than reducing emissions, those created by IT look set to go up 10% In the next 10 years. 

In addition to the data center itself there is also the contribution to energy consumption made by simply moving these vast and growing volumes of data around, which accounts for some 1% of the energy consumed. The data numbers continue to grow, to the point where new names are already set for what follows the Yottabyte, which is (if my inadequate maths is right) 1 billion Petabytes).

Getting a change in behavior

One of the Pure Storage goals here is to change customer behavior, even where they still require capital ownership of a data center as an asset, but want to consume capacity and software on a unit basis.  Petter explained: 

What we have seen over the last 12 months in particular is many of our largest customers asking us to switch to a subscription model rather than a standard procurement model, simply because they know that that model works well. And it's actually a bigger part of our business.

It is also making changes to its technology aimed at reducing energy consumption. For example, though the ideal situation now is that data centers are powered entirely by DC electricity, very few customers use it. It is still seen as a big investment, despite its long term advantages. So one target area is in AC power supplies, where the company is already achieving 95% efficiency, with more expected over the next couple of years.

Pure is also looking at eWaste, where it is aiming to use sustainable and/or compostable materials in the manufacture and packaging of its storage product, according to Petter: 

We now maintain a database of conflict free resources, ethical suppliers, those with appropriate labor laws and labor guidance, make sure there's no child labor, slave labor, all the things you'd expect in the modern world.

Though it is known as a storage systems producer, the company sees itself as a database platform provider that can run equally well on premise or in the cloud. Built on NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory express) technology with a proprietary driver for data encryption and for garbage collection, the company claim a 20% efficiency advantage over competing systems, coupled with reliability said to be three times that of other suppliers.

These figures will make a positive difference to direct energy consumption and the company claims an additional advantage is terms of eWaste, in that the encryption means that time-expired drives do not need to be shredded on security grounds. Its current range of drives go up to 38 Terabytes, though it claims 100 TB is already possible as soon as it sees the market being ready for them.

According to CTO International Alex McMullan, one of the big changes the company has made aims to help users observe and manage their energy usage and sustainability. Its management software now shows customers the live power draw and the live CO2 generation of each storage array, together with red and green `traffic lights’ showing which arrays are efficient, which are full, which are not full:

“There's a Watts-per-Terabyte number of every single device that is sitting in your data center. It gives you that, updated every few minutes, the exact story on energy consumption. We’re missing our 2030/2040 goals and nobody's talking about neutrality, more keeping things as they are. We need to get to a point where customers can ask vendors, and particular storage vendors, how energy efficient they are. We were the first data-reducing storage array. Everybody's now desperately greenwashing their inefficiency in this space. We've published Watts-per-Terabyte for every single device that's out there for us. We want to get to a point where there is one standard the industry agrees to, that is actually fair for everyone, that is, most importantly, transparent and reliable for customers.

The company is now seeing mature organizations begin sustainability initiatives with a view to building digital trust as part of their brand out into the future. It sees a need for businesses to retain or attract a lot of talent from amongst the younger generations. According to McMullan:

They are now asking very tough questions of organizations before joining them. They understand the purpose of what they want to contribute. So it's becoming a big part. And we estimate that 60% of organizations will have sustainability parameters as part of their business KPIs by 2023.

Wider questions

After the roundtable session I got the opportunity to put some questions to Petter about some of these wider management issues. One of the key ones is whether most of Pure Storage's customers know that they, their customers, and their customers’ customers, are now faced with the task of accounting for the 'green credentials' of all their raw materials suppliers? He said: 

I think companies today are more aware and savvy of their extended supply chain than ever before, and we find that our customers have an acute awareness of not just the sustainability of their supply chain, but also its ethicality. That's one of the reasons why we introduced our Pure1 Sustainability Assessment tool in September. In 2021, our supply chain implemented a series of product packaging redesigns to promote recycle and reuse, in order to reduce waste. We totally committed to providing products that are free of conflict minerals and contract manufacturers abide by the RBA Code of Conduct. Supply chain is a crucial part of driving efficiency while prioritising the environment.

There is also the cynical question as to whether the whole sustainability issue is just a flash-in-the-pan? Once sustainable energy sources are established, who should give a damn about how sustainable or efficient the energy consumption process is? The main driver will then be the simple issue of cost/unit of sustainable, carbon free, widely available energy. This is a line of thought that could well be driving the general level of tardiness currently seen with sustainability issues, according to Petter: 

We can't afford to treat this issue as a flash in the pan as it's so multifaceted and certainly isn't just about energy consumption and the associated costs. Even if by magic we found a cheap, plentiful, renewable source of energy today, it wouldn't solve the issues of ewaste piling up, inefficiencies causing rising global temperatures which lead to catastrophic habitat loss and increased natural disasters. A new source of energy also wouldn't resolve unethical practices in supply chains such as the use of child labour. For decades, owning storage meant tolerating a repeated cycle of maintenance extortion, expensive array re-purchases, risky data migrations, and resource intensive planning every three-to-four years. These forklift upgrades represent tremendous risk, expense, and worst of all a huge amount of e-waste which is not only environmentally-unfriendly, but also a direct health risk.

We're doing things differently however, and have responsibly designed our solutions to be software driven, modular, stateless, scalable, field serviceable and field upgradable. This allows data storage equipment to stay modern while leveraging the latest industry innovation, without needing to rip out and throw away physical equipment. As a result 97% of Pure Storage arrays purchased six years ago are still in service today.

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