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The Sustainability Channel

The Hidden Carbon - How to Switch to Better Practices

How we store our online data is wasting our energy, writes Filmlocker's Keiren O’Brien

The Hidden Carbon - How to Switch to Better Practices

“I’m on a sustainable ‘Green Energy Tariff’ so I leave the lights on all the time, just in case I need to find something”.

Things no one has ever said… Obviously I don’t leave the lights on all the time. But a recent sales meeting got me thinking... why is it acceptable to leave data in the cloud, doing nothing, sitting there for years, using energy, and producing carbon at a frightening rate, just because you might need it sometime?

It really is like leaving all the lights on in your house, all year round, 24/7, 365, just in case you might want to find Jamie Oliver’s most excellent porchetta recipe from the bookshelf in the spare room. You just wouldn’t do it! It’s insane, so why is it acceptable with data?

It is estimated that 80% of the data held online is rarely or never accessed. Let’s consider the carbon cost of that: every ten terabytes (10TBs) of data held in a data centre for one year is the equivalent of heating just over 2,800 UK houses.

So why is this data still just sitting there and why aren’t we making efforts to store it in a more sustainable way? Perhaps because it’s just there in the background, in an online folder entitled ‘Random Old Stuff’. It’s hidden, in a deep dark hole somewhere, no longer ‘on the cloud’ but somewhere ‘else’.  

All the big cloud providers offer long-term archive data storage with frosty names like blizzard or icicle, hoping you imagine a frozen artic mountainside vault, rather than a vast server centre in Virginia USA. In reality, this is where the data is, on a server, in a server centre, using energy intensive spinning discs and cooling them at frightening rate. Worse still, the data is saved several times over, for redundancy. Over time this data will move from the fast-spinning front-end disks that make it quick and easy to view or download, and be transferred to slower archive disks. Regardless they use terrific amount of electricity.

Now here’s the thing, pretty much every cloud supplier purports to be carbon neutral, or net zero, it’s the thing you must do! Sadly, and horribly predictably, recent reports in the press reveal that this mostly amounts to greenwashing. They might be claiming sustainable power supply as a reason to leave the lights on, but it just doesn’t wash.

In the creative industries, the need to secure large amounts of data, for long periods of time is often a contractual necessity. It rarely needs to be accessed, just kept secure. The question is how can this be stored in a low carbon way?  

LTO is the backbone of the data storage industry, Linear Tape Open to give it the full sexy IT name. Online providers use LTO in their data storage process as back-ups; Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram, Apple, you name them, they all use it. LTO’s roots stretch back to the 1950’s and the format was formalised in the 2000’s to offer a single product solution from a unified group of suppliers. It’s a robust, cost effective and a reliable dense data format, storing up to 18Tbs on one small tape. The energy to put the data onto the tapes is minimal and storing tapes uses no energy at all, nothing!

There are simple programs to move data to LTO from your cloud storage or your own internal servers. It works especially well for project-based businesses where entire projects can be archived in one hit, even when the data runs into the tens or hundreds of terabytes.

So, instead of wasting energy to store terabytes of forgotten data in the cloud, let’s use it to heat our homes instead. With climate change threatening the supply and price of energy, we need to start making savings in everything we do. Aside from making ecological sense to explore alternative data storage approaches it also reaps financial benefits.

Film Locker has been supplying the media, broadcast, and advertising sectors with low carbon digital data storage for over ten years. Contact us for more info.


Keiren O’Brien is CEO of Filmlocker

Photo Credit Kari Shea on Unsplash

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