Do you help the environment by moving to the cloud?


[date-stamp]Need another reason to move your data to the cloud? It’s not obvious at first glance, but moving to the cloud actually improves the environmental stewardship of a company.


Saving Energy

You may think, “Well, whether I have the servers locally or in the cloud, I am still using the same amount of energy.” This is not actually the case, and it’s due to efficiency. A 2010 Microsoft-commissioned study by Accenture and WSP Environment and Energy found several key areas that increase efficiency and lower carbon emissions.

Dynamic Provisioning

IT departments build and use larger server, network and storage infrastructures than are required. The reasons for this are to reduce problems when demand fluctuates, problems with anticipating growth and budgeting issues. This kind of over-provisioning, which is necessary for normal operations in a company that uses local servers, is avoided in cloud operations because they are much more diligent in optimizing active servers to avoid expense. A smaller infrastructure equals less energy.


Think of using cloud based operations like renting an apartment. You will save energy in a multi-tenant environment versus a stand-alone structure. The multiple tenant system of cloud operations allows companies to reduce their energy use and carbon footprint. Many companies are being serviced through the same infrastructure, and overall their demand patterns flatten out and are more predictable-reducing the average/peak demand ratio. Because of this, the need for more infrastructure is reduced. However, it should be noted that this is truer for more mature cloud companies. New, rapidly growing cloud companies have greater infrastructure needs.

Server Utilization

Cloud computing improves server utilization. Server utilization is the portion of the server’s capacity that an active application uses, and cloud operations optimize this. Large cloud service providers have higher and more stable utilization levels meaning that it takes far fewer servers to do the same tasks as on-site servers. Whilst the higher utilization rate consumes more power, the increase in power is minimal compared to the increased in utilization. What this means is that it takes a lot less power to do more work on one machine versus a small amount of work on many machines.

Data Center Efficiency

The structure that houses the servers is important in saving energy. This is about energy efficient design, but it’s also about a structure that is specifically designed to house servers. The measure used to quantify data center energy efficiency is called PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness Ratio). A 1.5 PUE means that for every kWh of energy used by the data center, 1.5 kWh is actually needed (the extra 0.5 kWh is used for cooling). A 2007 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report to Congress on server and data center energy efficiency revealed that the average business’ data center had a 1.9 PUE. Because of their scale, cloud-computing companies through innovation and energy efficient design can achieve 1.1-1.2 PUEs. Just through data center design, the efficiency of cloud companies over traditional businesses could be as high as 40%.


Beyond Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is just part of the picture. Cloud computing has other key factors that contribute to its environmental benefits. It’s important to have a life cycle perspective when evaluating whether something is sustainable. Energy efficiency focuses on the use phase of the lifecycle. There are, however, environmental impacts in all lifecycle stages: from resource extraction, to manufacture, in the use phase and at the end-of life (i.e. cradle to grave). The following factors explain the environmental benefits of moving to the cloud outside of the use phase.


The more stuff you have, the greater the impact on the environment. Each product from a computer to a bottled water has environmental impacts in each phase of its lifecycle. When there is a reduction in consumption, this helps the environment. In terms of cloud-computing, if a company has a large amount of hardware that is only partially used, it is better for the environment if they use cloud services that operate a multi-tenant environment. Fewer machines are needed to do the same amount of work, and fewer machines means a reduced environmental impact.

Location and Source

Not all energy is created equal in terms of its environmental impact. Increasing energy efficiency takes environmental stewardship only so far. The energy source is key. If a company operates in a country like Norway, which gets a large part of its energy supply from hydropower, the company’s environmental impact will be much less (regardless of energy efficiency) compared to a company that operates in a place that gets a large percentage of its energy from coal-even if the data center has a state-of-the-art energy efficient design. With cloud computing, it is sometimes possible to pick the location of the servers that your company will use (for example Amazon Web Service (AWS), where you can choose between 8 places worldwide: Ireland, Singapore, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Virginia, Oregon, California and Sydney). In some cases, it is also possible to find out what the energy mix for the servers in different locations looks like. Greenpeace provides a table that shows which companies are transparent in reporting and using renewables. This table is from 2012, and AWS has since been more transparent. However, their data centers are far from carbon-free.



So how do all these environmental benefits add up? A Google-funded study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in cooperation with Northwestern University has quantified the environmental benefits of moving to the cloud through their model, named the Cloud Energy and Emissions Research (CLEER). If companies move common programs like email, spreadsheets and CRM programs to the cloud, as much as 326 Petrajoules could be saved-enough to power Los Angeles for a year. The CLEER model is free and available for the public.

Companies need to take environmental stewardship seriously, and many of them do. It’s a matter of reputation, cost reduction, but overall it’s value creation. Not only with the environment benefit, so will the company. In answering the question of why a company should move to the cloud, it’s not just about the business case for moving to the cloud, it’s also about the business case for sustainability.