The environmental impact of dark data

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Dark data isn’t just a burden on information security and governance – it’s also responsible for releasing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually

24 mei 20217 min
The environmental impact of dark data
Dark data isn’t just a burden on information security and governance – it’s also responsible for releasing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually

Most conversations about dark data revolve around its untapped value in business intelligence and decision-making. While there is no doubt that getting a handle on dark data can help boost productivity and streamline compliance and security, its impact on the environment is rarely a topic that comes to mind.

However, a recent study by Veritas Technologies found that the business practice of hoarding dark data will be responsible for pumping 6.4 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2021. Moreover, as the amount of data in the world continues to double every two years, the problem is only going to become more serious.

As organizations face increasing pressure to adopt more sustainable business models, there is a growing need to focus on societal and environmental impacts. Implementing and enforcing a robust corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy has become a business imperative in an age where consumers, employees, and stakeholders evaluate companies with an increasingly critical eye.

When it comes to dark data, it might seem easy to brush off its impact on the environment as insignificant. After all, when most people think about pollutants and carbon footprints, the first things that usually come to mind are heavy industry, agriculture, or gas-guzzling vehicles. The problem with dark data is that it is, by definition, an unused and wasted resource. As such, its environmental impact is wholly unnecessary.

How dark data consumes resources

IDC predicts that there will be almost 100 zettabytes of dark data in the world by 2025, which is around four times the volume that exists today. Companies have a responsibility to regain control over these assets if not for the sake of the environment, then for the sake of security, compliance, and governance. The challenges of dark data are only going to get greater, which is why it is essential to start tackling them now.

The extremely low and constantly decreasing costs of data storage also mean that businesses do not feel they have much incentive to prune their data sets. Instead, they usually store these vast amounts of data in storage arrays in data centers. These storage arrays rarely use low-power solid state drives either, due to their high costs and limited life spans. Instead, a typical storage array consists of traditional hard drives whose magnetic platters are constantly spun up to read or write data.

At the scale of today’s data centers, this process consumes a massive amount of energy and generates a lot of heat. This is why data centers need round-the-clock cooling, which also consumes significant amounts of energy. Finally, there is ongoing maintenance to consider. Components like hard drives need to be retired and replaced every so often. They also need to be securely sanitized if there is any chance that they contain sensitive information.

How to reduce the environmental impact of dark data

Most organizations now rely heavily on the cloud for storing their data. While the advantages of cloud computing are clear, it is also easy to think of data being stored in the cloud as being out of sight and out of mind. However, just because you are outsourcing your data storage to a remote data center operated by a tech giant like Amazon or Google, that does not translate into a reduced environmental impact. The major tech companies are doing what they can to further their own CSR policies, but the responsibility of data governance ultimately falls to the organization using the services.

This is a problem that no organization can afford to ignore. Even if it does not seem particularly serious now, the challenge will only become much greater in the years ahead. To counter the challenge of dark data, organizations need to adopt a sustainable data lifecycle management policy whereby irrelevant and outdated data is automatically deleted or at least archived onto external storage media that does not consume any power. Consolidating databases can also greatly reduce an organization’s data footprint while also delivering many other benefits, such as increased efficiency, productivity, and collaboration. After all, having a single data source means virtually no risk of conflicting information and data silos.

A lower data footprint equals a lower carbon footprint

Today, with so much emphasis being placed on the value of data, it has become commonplace to overlook its environmental impact. The fact is that a lot of data has no value whatsoever. Instead of hoarding data without a second thought, organizations should focus on maintaining the quality and integrity of their data sets. The first step towards doing that is to stop dark data at its source and regain visibility into your digital assets.

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