Bigtechs destroy HDDs and SSDs by the millions instead of
Hardware

Bigtechs destroy HDDs and SSDs by the millions instead of just erasing them

Companies like Amazon and Microsoft as well as banks, law enforcement and government agencies destroy millions of storage devices every year, found the Financial Times after a survey of more than 30 people from the server industry. And this is despite the opinion of many experts and specialists who say that there is another, better option for safe disposal – safe erasing of devices using special software before they are sold on the secondary market.

    Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

Mick Payne, COO of Harrogate-based IT asset recycling company Techbuyer, recalled the moment he realized the wrong approach to recycling storage devices. In a data center in London, he saw thousands of used hard drives from a credit card company. Knowing he could erase the drives and sell them to new customers, Mike offered management a six-figure sum for all the devices. The answer was negative.

Instead, a truck pulled up in front of the building, authorized security personnel loaded all the drives inside and took them to a recycling center, where industrial machines chopped them up into small fragments. “I walked out thinking, “This is absolute madness”Payne says. — Management decided to destroy these discs, although we could erase them on the spot and then sell them to a new customer who could use them for years…”.

There are approximately 70 million servers worldwide, each containing multiple storage devices. They are in over 23,000 data centers. When companies decide to upgrade their hardware, which typically happens every three to five years, storage devices tend to be destroyed in ways similar to those described by Payne. But there is an alternative.

In terms of data security, these devices do not need to be physically destroyedsays Felice Alfieri, a European Commissioner who co-authored a report on data center greening and advocates wiping data rather than destroying devices.

    Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

The reason companies are reluctant to refrain from physically destroying media is fear of data leakage, which could result in lost customers and hefty regulatory fines. For example, last month the US Securities and Exchange Commission fined Morgan Stanley $35 million for “Failure to protect customer dataafter the bank’s decommissioned servers and hard drives were sold without proper cleaning by an inexperienced company. As a result, some of the devices with bank details were auctioned off on the Internet.

Although the incident was due to devices not being stripped of data prior to sale, the bank now requires that any decommissioned data device be destroyed on-site. And this approach is widespread among most large companies.

An Amazon Web Services employee said, on condition of anonymity, that the company destroys all storage devices once they become obsolete, typically after three to five years of use: “If we allow ourselves even a small data leak, we lose the trust of our customers.“.

One person familiar with Microsoft’s data recycling operations says the company regularly destroys all drives in its 200+ Azure data centers. According to Microsoft itself, this is done to “to ensure complete confidentiality of customer data“.

The UK Department of Education, Department for Work and Pensions and Scottish Police told the Financial Times that they are also destroying all decommissioned storage devices. Police in Northern Ireland have destroyed more than 30,000 devices including servers and hard drives in the last two years.

Some government agencies say they follow recommendations from the National Cyber ​​Security Center, which recommends the physical destruction of hard drives. However, the Department for Finance and Customs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said they do not require destruction, and London Police said they only destroy hard drives when necessary.

    Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

Consulting firm Gartner predicts that 700 more data centers will be built around the world over the next three years, making the question of what companies do with millions of tons of obsolete equipment increasingly relevant.

It’s hard to say how many hard drives are retired each year worldwide, but according to a study by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there are at least 20 million in America alone. While most data center companies discard their drives after a few years, they could last for years or even decades, according to several industry experts.

According to the study, more than 90% of the drives will be destroyed during the planned decommissioning of plants, although most are still functional. According to the European Commission, around half of the decommissioned devices in the EU suffer the same fate.

Without exception, we destroy everything that contains data says Greg Rabinowitz, president of Urban E Recycling, a Florida electronics recycling company. – ANDSometimes we even got requests to burn the leftovers after shredding discs!»

According to Julien Walzberg, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Labs, while recycled drives can usually be recycled, current technology can only recover about 70% of the original materials from them.

When recycling electronic devices, they are usually separated into aluminium, steel and printed circuit boards. But hard drives also contain valuable materials such as neodymium and dysprosium in magnets, and nickel and palladium in circuit boards, which often cannot be recovered. Some of these materials are on “critical” lists in the US and EU.

    Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

Image Credit: Lorne Campbell, Guzelian and SWEEEP Kuusakoski

While various projects are currently underway to recover some of the materials lost when drives are recycled, the mere phenomenon of hard drives being destroyed after several years of use violates the first rule of sustainable consumption – reuse is always better than recycle.

Even if you recover all of the materials when recycling a product, all of the energy and money expended in using those materials to manufacture product components is lost‘ says Waltzberg.

Some major cloud service providers are taking steps towards reuse. According to Google, 27% of components used in server upgrades in 2021 have been refurbished and data on hard drives will be overwritten for reuse where possible. Microsoft is currently implementing several programs to restore old servers and says that by 2024 more than 80% of decommissioned equipment will be reused.

But especially with hard drives, shredding is still the norm. While some companies have already moved to wiping and reselling their storage devices, others still believe the risk outweighs the potential benefits. That being said, many experts insist that traditional discs can be safely erased and reused, a practice that first emerged in the early 1990s but has only become widespread in the last decade.

Destroying hard drives just because it claims to be the only way to ensure data is erased from the device is wrong.says Fredrik Forslund, vice president of Blancco, a maker of data erasing software. The Financial Times asked several industry experts if they were aware of data breaches after using data erasers like Blancco’s software, and none were reported.

As big tech companies change their ways of recycling hard drives, many experts believe other companies will definitely follow suit. However, currently they prefer not to change the recycling process, but rather to extend the life of the equipment. Last year, Google announced it would extend the lifespan of its cloud servers from three to four years, and Amazon Web Services extended the lifespan of its hardware from four to five years in February. Microsoft has announced an extension of the lifespan of all its server and network equipment from four to six years.

About the author

Dylan Harris

Dylan Harris is fascinated by tests and reviews of computer hardware.

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