Why tomorrow’s data could end up like today’s plastic

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

The intensity of the internet’s energy is about to escalate so much that the current infrastructure will come under pressure and lead to “severe economic and environmental concerns”.


Ever thought about the carbon footprint of the thousands of photos you’ve taken of your dog, or the multiple draft versions of each work document, that are all stored in the cloud?

Chances are you haven’t.

Cofounders of clean energy startup Fasade, Pavel Stanek and Ankit Jagannath, say that the consumer has been left out of the conversation on the carbon footprint of data.

There’s growing recognition that data centres – home to everything stored in the “cloud” – consume staggering amounts of the world’s energy (around 3 per cent) and subsequent pollution (unless powered by renewables).

As such, effort has been poured into improving the energy performance of data storage technology and the facilities that its housed in and powering these data centres with renewables.

But Stanek says that the supply side of the market has received most of the attention, with the data consumer completely left out of the equation. He says it’s not unlike the plastic crisis, where “everyone puts the blame on the big companies, but the end user is still buying the plastic.”

It’s as ubiquitous as plastic too, with more than 50 per cent of the world’s data and information duplicate or unused.

And much like recycling plastic, the end user has more to gain than just a warm fuzzy feeling that they are saving the planet –there’s also money to be saved if you do it effectively.

While data storage isn’t very expensive, for big companies such as legal firms and insurance companies the quantity of storage can add up to big bills.

Stanek and Jagannath saw an opening to provide a solution that helped organisations to manage their data better and “recycle” (aka delete) replicas.

The two have come up with a tool that aggregates all files stored on various systems so that they can be efficiently cleaned up and managed.

By allowing users to quickly delete duplicate or redundant data, organisations pay less for storage. There’s also less data hanging around creating a cybersecurity risk, and more organised data assets are easier to navigate, helping employees to save time.

The technology has won the favour of clean tech accelerator program EnergyLab, and has been selected alongside six other Australian companies as part of the seventh intake of its nine-month program.

A disaster lying in wait

If you’re wondering if this is worth it when data centres can be powered with renewables or they can offset emissions, consider the data explosion we’re about to see with the mass adoption of 5G and Internet of Things.

Jagannath, who leans more into the technical side of the business, says that there are limitations on how efficient you can make data storage hardware. The cofounders also believe that “people overestimate renewable energy” and its ability to meet our insatiable appetite for energy-guzzling data, especially when the resources it takes to make wind turbines, solar panels and the associated clean storage are considered.

Stanek says that the internet’s energy intensity will escalate so much that the current infrastructure will come under pressure and lead to “severe economic and environmental concerns”.

This is why the founders say that the carbon footprint of data needs to be tackled on both the demand and supply side.

Green data management can be better than offsets

As the pollution footprint of data becomes more widely recognised, Stanek and Jagannath expect government to step in with improved schemes and policies to encourage green data management.

As such, the startup sees themselves as a value-adding alternative to buying expensive offsets or procuring renewables in the pursuit of no or low carbon data management.

Best value for organisations with lots of unstructured data

Stanek imagines insurance companies, legal firms and professional services firms will be particularly attracted to the Fasade tool thanks to the large quantitates of unstructured, risky data held by these organisations.

He says it’s hard to estimate how much money each organisation will save on data storage but real saving will “come into play” where there are large amounts of unstructured data.

Insurance companies, which struggle to access to 80 per cent of their data, would likely see notable costs savings from such a product.

Is this anything new?

There are already technology platforms out there that aggregate files on disparate systems so that they can be managed in one place, but it’s certainly an emerging capability, and largely out of reach for small to medium sized businesses.

“These platforms are mainly for blue chip companies.”

Its focus on the carbon footprint of data is also unique, as far as the co-founders are aware.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Why tomorrow’s data could end up like today’s plastic”

  • Rick Walters says:

    Hey Ken, interesting comment about paper files vs electronic. I’d be very surprised if paper files have lower impact when you consider all the energy and resources to print and store paper but I’d like to see an LCA on this for an objective answer if anyone knows of one?

  • Ken Hickson says:

    I have enough trouble managing my data storage on my computer, so how much better should we be managing data centres for energy efficiency. Maybe we should be returning to paper files which are far friendlier to the environment than digital. Paper is a carbon store after all so can also be a data store!

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