Data storage has a power consumption problem

Issue 2/3 2023 Infrastructure

Richard Tatham.

Computing is fundamentally electricity in action. All our digital interactions and information come down to binary, a language of ones and zeroes that interpret how electricity flows through electronic processing chips. We store data with electricity by placing those ones and zeros onto magnetic mediums, or altering electric charges inside flash memory.

If there is no power, there is no storage. And likewise, when you have a lot of storage, it can consume considerable amounts of electricity. For several years, this was not a big concern. Power-related innovations have made computers much more efficient, creating remarkable stability. The International Energy Agency estimates that despite a 15-fold growth in global Internet traffic since 2010, data centres still consume only 1% of the world's electricity—the same as 13 years ago.

At least, they did. Newer data argues that the efficient years are thinning out. An EU study found that European countries' data centres used 76.8 terawatt-hours in 2018, up from 53.9 terawatt-hours in 2010. That is 2.7% of the EU's total electricity demand.

"There was a time when data centre growth threatened to overtake power production," says Richard Tatham, General Manager, Alliance. "The efficiency gains we’ve seen since 2000 have avoided that problem. But the massive growth of data, in particular, is starting to change the picture and it should be a leading consideration when companies look at energy efficiency."

Data growth and power demands

Date volumes continue to grow at a staggering rate. Research firm IDC estimates that 220 zettabytes of data will be created by 2026 (one zettabyte is one billion gigabytes). This data is also expanding in type: broadly, there is structured and unstructured data, and more specifically, different data have different access priorities. Some data must be readily available and quick to process, while others can languish on slower drives or sit in long-storage archives.

Data requires electricity. The paper The Megawatts behind Your Megabytes estimates the Internet uses an average of about 5 kWh to support one gigabyte of data. It also reports that almost half of that consumption goes towards data centres, while end-users consume 38%, and the rest is for data transit. The vast majority of electricity spent on data relates to storage.

"We're starting to see a correlation between how much energy a company needs for computing and how much data it stores. Further to that, there are clear differences emerging between companies that have data management storage strategies and those that don't. The latter spend more money on electricity, either directly or as costs to a data centre provider, than they need to," says Tatham.

Smart data storage with tape

Smart businesses classify their data on type and importance, using storage and disaster recovery processes that put the right data in the right places. They rely on techniques such as deduplication and compression, which deliver significant gains, especially for high-speed storage systems.

Yet more established data storage options are also playing important roles. Notably, tape storage: while hard drive shipments were down in 2022, tape continued growing. The aggregated capacity of all tape drives shipped in 2022 totalled 79.3 exabytes (14% year-over-year growth), and a 2022 Trendfocus report predicts that tapes used to store archives and for cold storage will keep growing at least through 2027.

Why are tapes, seemingly an outdated technology, becoming more popular? It's because they are excellent for energy efficiency. A paper last year from the Enterprise Strategy Group confirms this:

● Due to lower power consumption, tapes have a 6.5x reduction in CO2 emissions relative to disk, simply by moving 500 TB of data from disk to tape.

● Tapes have a 10-year-plus refresh cycle, while other storage mediums are closer to 5 years.

● Tapes can achieve a 3x reduction in disposal requirements versus other storage mediums.

Tapes won't replace faster storage, and it's impractical for frequently accessing 'hot' data. But data operates in tiers. It's too slow to manage highly active data on standard hard drives, yet hugely inefficient to store everything on one type of storage. Tapes are the third leg of the chair in solid data management and loss prevention processes.

"Tape storage is a bit like email," he says. "Everyone keeps predicting its demise, but tape keeps going from strength to strength. The growing pressure for more efficient energy consumption in the data world shows again why tape hasn't been replaced. When you want to archive large volumes of data, there isn't a better or more energy-efficient option. Whether a business cares about ESG requirements or reducing costs, they should look at what their data bill really is and whether tape storage will make a big difference. I have no doubt it will."

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