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The convenience and scalability of the cloud is certainly beneficial for businesses – and for many of us, if we’re running out of storage, whether at work or at home, we simply buy more. But whether we’re clicking on a link, googling or streaming videos, every action we take online creates data – and that data requires energy, the vast majority of which is still produced by fossil fuels.

Data centres use between ten and fifty times as much power per floor space as a typical office building over the same period of time, which means that a single data centre can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes. Considering that the internet is not yet even 40 years old, where will we be in the next forty years?

The result of storing all this data, many people would be surprised to learn, is that the cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. While to the average user, the cloud might seem like a never-ending, limitless entity, the physical infrastructure that creates the cloud – and the energy needed to power it – is having a huge, but almost invisible impact on our environment. As our data storage requirement expands, so does the need to build more data centres. We are then required to generate more energy to power them, and enormous amounts of power to maintain them.

As we are all aware, data usage is expanding rapidly. In 2022, the electricity utilised by data centres accounted for 0.3 percent of overall carbon emissions, but if we extend our accounting to include networked devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets, that total shifts to 2 percent of global carbon emissions.

So how do we reduce the environmental impact of our data storage?

One of the solutions to this energy consumption problem lies with emerging technologies. Microsoft, for example, has dramatically reduced their cooling energy by submerging server racks in specially designed coolant fluids. Importantly, this has led the way for research into the potential for undersea data centres, powered by renewable offshore energy farms.

Another option has been to locate the data centres in cooler climates. Whilst it may not be a practical solution to physically move hundreds of data servers around the globe to cooler climates, commissioning new centres in cold regions would create less impact. This sounds simple in theory, but this approach doesn’t always work – for a start, many countries legislate that their citizen’s data must be stored domestically.

Panorama of geothermal power station in Iceland

(Pictured – Panorama of geothermal power station in Iceland)

Nevertheless, in recent years, Iceland has become a dream location for some companies to locate their data servers, which generate massive amounts of heat and require constant cooling. The country’s unique weather allows data centres to forgo expensive cooling systems and instead allow the naturally cold air do the job for them. That sounds great in principle, but they are starting to drive electricity use in the country through the roof.

While it is clearly better for the centres to run in eco-friendly environments — and Iceland has a significant supply of renewable sources including geothermal and hydroelectric power — the supply of energy isn’t endless and it isn’t without costs.

Environmentalists warn that as more electricity is driven to and consumed by these businesses, less is available for more environmentally friendly purposes like powering electric cars or selling carbon offsets.

For Vamosa, one of our key areas of interest is in reducing data quantity, which can have a significant impact on energy consumption. For example, prior to our data migration process, one duplicate file can take up twice the storage and generate twice the costs – and some companies can have situations where large volumes of people download the same document, ending up with hundreds of duplicate files, all taking up a lot of unnecessary space. Since companies are then paying to store all this information, Vamosa recommends prioritising regular data audits to get rid of unnecessary files. Similarly, incomplete or ‘dirty data’ holds no value for any company. And in many cases, data quickly becomes obsolete – it’s estimated that 25% of the average organisation’s corporate data is inaccurate.

Vamosa’s deduplication software can delete thousands of multiple files, freeing up valuable storage space. Vamosa’s compression applications can also help with data reduction by finding and deleting repeated bytes, which works really well for databases, emails and digital files. In addition, depending on the level of security required, reclassifying data into different tiering categories can also help, which is why Vamosa are always keen to do a thorough data analysis at the start of any project. Whilst no more space is created, this process reduces the amount of high-level storage needed, and therefore the energy needed for the server where it is stored.