Marketing vanity metrics are driving e-waste in data centers

How many websites need a guarantee that they will be available 99.9% of the time? 1%? How much data needs such absolute security guarantees that the device on which it is stored needs to be physically destroyed?

To achieve 99.9% uptime guarantees, data centers must replace their servers every three to five years. This results in massive and totally unnecessary e-waste. In anything approaching a sustainable world, these servers would be legally mandated to be kept in service for twenty years. It’s just one more example of how we consume and waste such vast quantities of materials every year.

The underlying problem is that most data centers are dumps. At least 90% of data is not used a couple of months after it’s first stored. So, data centers do this data theater where they pretend they are storing super-important data, most of which is crap data. Then, to protect the security of this crap data that should have been deleted ages ago, they physically shred the perfectly working hard disk that it is stored on.

There’s a great definition of Big Data I came across recently: “When the cost of keeping data around is less than the cost of figuring out what to throw away.” The Cloud has ushered in an era of incredible waste. There has always been a deep waste mindset within the IT industry. The Cloud has made it ten times worse.

The data center industry has a zero-risk policy when it comes to data security. This is simply an impossible and impractical policy. “It can't be one in a million drives, one in 10 million drives, one in 100 million drives that leaks. It has to be zero," Jonmichael Hands, secretary of the Circular Drive Initiative, tells the BBC. “The irony is that shredding devices is relatively risky today. The latest drives have 500,000 tracks of data per square inch. A sophisticated data recovery person could take a piece as small as 3mm and read the data off it.”

There are better solutions out there that don’t involve destroying perfectly good and working materials. “A cryptographic erase takes just a couple of seconds,” Mr Hands says. “Many modern drives have built-in encryption, so that the data on them can only be read if you have the encryption key. If that key is deleted, all the data is scrambled. It’s still there, but it’s impossible to read. The drive is safe to resell.”

Convenience, fast delivery, always on, always available, absolute guarantees of this and that, store what you want when you want—these are all unsustainable, environmentally destructive ways of living. Digital feeds a culture of waste in a world that is being rapidly drained of its resources and poisoned by its waste.

When it comes to data waste, we must start at the beginning. Why are we creating so much low-level data? We took 1.4 trillion photos last year, more than were taken in the entire 20th century. To survive, we must slow down in every sense, and that includes slowing down our data creation activities. We need new metrics that measure the true and total cost to the Earth and its environment of promising such things as 99.9% uptime.

Why millions of usable hard drives are being destroyed, Sean McManus, BBC, 2023

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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