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Data centre hardware and the (more sustainable) circle of life


Michael Rostad, global information technology director at Sims Lifecycle Services (SLS) explores the circularity of data centre hardware.

The world as it is today has become heavily reliant on technology, especially since the pandemic forced many to shift from in-person to virtual.

Currently about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced by humans every day, and that number is expected to rise to 463 exabytes by 2025. All this data must be processed and stored somewhere. Along with the increase in online data use and consumption, comes the growth in demand on data centre infrastructure and internet bandwidth.

This increasing reliance may help explain why the worldwide server market has shown 19.8% year-over-year growth in Q2 of 2020. And it does not stop there. The global data centre server market is currently projected to grow at a CAGR of 14% between 2020-2024, according to the latest market research report by Technavio.

Currently, data centres utilise an estimated six million tonnes of rack and server material. Considering the lifecycle of data centre servers averages between three to five years, an estimated two million tonnes of equipment is expected to be available for decommissioning each year.

In a world where more servers are in use, more data is being processed and even more laws and regulations regarding data are put into place, there are many reasons why it is important to manage these devices during all stages of its lifecycle.

Reuse and recycling of storage, servers & hardware: Why is it important?
Ensuring data destruction

You are accountable for the data you store. When a user provides a company with any type of data, they expect their information will be adequately protected. As the person responsible for this role in your company, your job is on the line.

When it comes to the security of IT assets, often managing their retirement is the weakest point in the organisation’s data security strategy. Many IT security strategies focus more on deployment and replacement of assets than their disposition, allowing for gaps in security which can occur due to:

  • Inadequate data erasure: Unsuccessful data destruction can make previously stored data once again retrievable.
  • Mismanagement of assets: There have been circumstances where disposition partners have violated their contract and resold devices instead of shredding them.
  • Poor asset tracking: You cannot be confident that data destruction has been performed successfully if assets are not tracked and recorded properly. Your ITAD vendor should be able to locate assets at any time throughout the disposition process and verify methods of data destruction. This is usually made visible using an online ITAD portal.
Extending the life of devices

Get the most out of your equipment. One of the best things you can do for the environment is extend the life of your device. In high-demand settings equipment is replaced to maintain a certain level of speed and functionality. Replaced equipment is typically still in great working condition and could be useful in a different setting or for a different purpose.

A professional ITAD vendor will help you best develop a unique asset recovery strategy. This will help you discover how to best recover value from your equipment, usually through one or more of the following options:

  • Refurbishment and resale of devices through wholesale and retail channels
  • Refurbishment and redeployment within your business
  • Dismantling of devices and parts recovery of components for reuse
  • Responsible recycling of equipment that no longer has useful life.

When fulfilling your asset recovery strategy make sure you discuss with your ITAD vendor if there are additional opportunities to maximise your return on investment.

Compliance with global data privacy laws

128 countries around the world have enacted legislation to secure the protection of data and privacy. The average data centre stores about 1,327 exabytes of data that must be securely managed until it is either removed or destroyed.

While there are various data privacy laws around the world, some of the countries considered to have the heaviest data protection laws include: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States.

Your IT asset disposition (ITAD) company should be able to offer expertise on which regulations and laws pertain to you depending on where you are located, and the facility nearest you that will process your material.

Preserving our environment

The future is circular. A circular economy occurs when resources are kept in use for as long as possible, maximum value is extracted while in use, and materials are recovered and regenerated at the end of their useful life.

Many companies today have begun to embrace the principles of circularity and are setting goals to act on it. Some examples include the following:

  • Apple is currently carbon neutral and aims to have all their products carbon neutral by 2030.
  • Best Buy has committed to science-based targets to reduce its carbon emissions by 75% by 2030.
  • GM announced they will make only electric vehicles by 2035 and will be carbon neutral by 2040.
  • Microsoft announced a plan to be carbon negative by 2030.

From an environmental perspective, efforts to reduce carbon emissions will support the preservation of our climate, and the reuse and recycling of electronics contributes to achieving these goals.

A large amount of carbon is released when manufacturing new electronics. In comparison when electronics are properly reused and recycled, only 10% of greenhouse gas emissions are released.

What happens if this equipment is not managed efficiently?

When replacing data centre hardware without a good policy or programme in place, items can tend to build up within a company. Data storage devices sitting in a room can remain there until someone finally has a need to dispose of it. This has, in some cases, caused these devices to end up in a dumpster bin.

All organisations have a reputation to uphold and not managing these devices efficiently is important to prevent the following from happening:

  • Negative long-term revenue impacts: If not managed efficiently, data centre hardware with your asset tags (or your client’s) could end up in the wrong hands, making you directly liable for their mismanagement.
  • Insufficient data protection: Many data centre clients are demanding higher levels of security and auditing companies to ensure their data is protected.
  • Waste of residual materials: From an environmental perspective, careful management of these materials will help eliminate the waste of all the residual materials within this redundant equipment.

What legal/environmental repercussions are there?

The damage that can be done to a business will vary based on several different factors. The primary risk for legal repercussions comes from the liability for the information lost. It is important to be familiar with all local and regional regulations, but there are some that may affect you, no matter where you, or your business, is located. Not complying will generally result in hefty fines, reputational damage and environmentally you may be liable for clean-up costs.

What changes are on the horizon that may impact how to dispose of e-waste?

There are two big changes on the horizon which include stricter privacy rules and sustainable design.

As data privacy requirements mature you should be prepared for audits with appropriate documentation to prove all assets have been managed securely. You must also focus on not just the data but the asset itself. Keeping a strong IT asset inventory list will help you when the time has come for disposal.

From a sustainability perspective, as manufacturers work hard to support the circular economy sustainable design is making progress, with the goal to eventually ‘design out waste’. There is evidence of progress as ITAD vendors continue to see decreased use of hazardous materials, and sustainability is being discussed more as a part of the design process.

The reuse and recycling of data centre hardware and IT equipment must be managed carefully. When data centres partner with the right data centre decommissioning vendor they can reduce their administrative overhead, simplify their vendor relations, and improve their overall accountability. Any professional data centre decommissioning vendor should be able to provide guidance to ensure you receive a comprehensive solution, covering all these needs.

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