Paper Review 08 - Degrading Data to Save the Planet

My thoughts on Degrading Data to Save the Planet

Today’s paper appeared in HotOS'23 and deals with storing data with looser guarantees around durability in order to prolong the lifespan of flash storage devices.

It’s generally understood that most consumers don’t have the same expectations of durability for all of their data. For example, while there are documents and files that I care deeply about the integrity of, there’s also tons of throw away pictures and videos on my phone that I view as ephemeral. However, few users regularly categorize and delete media from their personal devices. Creating and storing this media contributes to the wear on the flash storage within our devices. The authors claim that by 2030 the carbon footprint of flash manufacturing will account for 1.7% of the world’s carbon emissions. The paper then goes on to sketch a solution that exploits variability in expectations around data durability to reduce wear on flash devices.

The paper’s pretty short and most of it is setting up context about the state of flash media production today, so I’ll just dive straight into my thoughts after a really quick summary:

  • Content can be stored in blocks that are less reliable, or without any error correction/redundancy.
  • An ML system can detect files that are likely to be acceptable for loss, and additional policies can be applied to request that some files are only stored in the safe partition (e.g. all files in some directory)
  • Some file types (e.g. MPEG) already have mechanisms to correct against corruption, and it isn’t infeasible to imagine more error correction being done at the software level for non-critical usage.


  • If this was deployed on the personal computing devices of today, would we really see an impact?
    • It’s been years since I’ve seen storage related issues on my phone. As the article indicates, flash storage manufacturing accounts for 12-31% of the carbon footprints of the iPhone, an impressive number, but the majority of carbon impact will come from premature retirement of the device as a whole - a topic that has been written about and explored recently.
    • This would probably have a much larger impact when applied to datacenters and larger scale clusters.
  • This could be a cool approach for building something like tmpfs, where data becomes rapidly less relevant the older it is.
  • This could have a lot of applications in the IOT space for non-critical applications (e.g. environmental monitoring for agriculture)
  • The paper claims that device re-use is impractical, but I’m not sure I agree. The paper backs up this claim by showing that consumers are unlikely to repurpose or recycle devices, but I think it’s somewhat feasible that devices could be collected from users and repurposed into applications like CDNs, or other caching layers, where having more distributed low powered devices could actually be useful (similar to junkyard computing.
  • Another interesting avenue for exploration could be filesystems that are aware of both their content and their underlying storage device. That is, if we had flash drivers that could store content in “degraded” mode, maybe we could also apply compression based on content type at the filesystem level before passing it along to the device. The rationale here is that smaller files could mean lower chance of catastrophic errors during read.

This paper proposes some interesting approaches to improving the situation around the carbon impact of flash manufacturing. There’s clearly a lot of scope for innovation in this space, but I remain convinced that the biggest opportunities lie in finding a way to repurpose e-waste into fulfilling large scale distributed computing applications.

Written on March 25, 2024