How Green Is The Cloud?

Cloud computing’s green credentials are a grey area…

The mass shift to cloud computing has come with a host of benefits, not least of all that it offers a greener solution for information and communications technology. But cloud networks, both private and public, rely on huge amounts of energy. In fact, IT related services account for two per cent of global carbon emissions – the same percentage as the aviation sector. If the cloud can be described as ‘green’, then arguably the energy it uses should come from sustainable sources. So, is the cloud really green?

Improve efficiency, improve the environment

There can be no doubt about it – cloud computing has some stellar sustainability credentials. First of all, it’s an enabler for the online economy. In the world of ecommerce, supply meets demand with data driven accuracy. This cuts down on unnecessary inventory, storage, processing, and everything that goes with it. 

The ability to store and share data in globally accessible locations has reduced the need for physical documents and meetings, saving on paper and travel emissions. And, because data centres can be accessed anywhere at any time, organisations don’t need to fork out for pricey servers. It also enables them to avoid the purchase of additional software, freeing them from the hassle of huge, in house data servers while allowing them to keep their existing infrastructure. In many cases, cloud software is automated, and is therefore even more efficient.

Another important factor is that commercial cloud computing is based on the as-a-service and pay as you go models. In house data centres must be constantly run and monitored, and their resource consumption is disproportionately high when compared to actual utilisation rates. In contrast, the cloud soaks up the data downpour as and when needed, with much higher utilisation rates. AWS claims that on site rates sit at 15 per cent, versus 65 per cent for a typical large scale cloud provider.

According to a Carbon Disclosure Project report published in 2011, businesses that adopt cloud based software reduce their energy consumption, IT resources, and carbon footprint. It’s all about efficiency – the more processes you can cut out, the more resources you save, which is largely why the cloud is seen as ‘green’.

Cleaning up the cloud

As more information is processed, more power is needed. Despite the cloud’s various environmental advantages, data storage solutions are only as green as the energy used to power them. While the cloud presents a greener alternative, it still requires masses of energy. Although the cloud is an invisible and almost ethereal entity, it has a physical presence in the servers it connects. Those servers are still consuming energy, regardless of where their data is stored. It’s not just about storing the data, either. When data is held in remote locations, it must be transported to the servers that need it… In many cases, these servers can be on the other side of the world. If data is stored by central, in house servers, data transmission is low distance and therefore low cost.

Large scale cloud providers have recognised that cloud computing must become more sustainable: Apple and Microsoft are among the companies that have made public commitments to achieve this goal. Apple’s iCloud, for example, is now powered by 100 per cent renewable energy. Microsoft aims to reduce its overall carbon emissions by 75 per cent, and Azure is currently being directly used for environmental sustainability projects. Even AWS, after consistent poor performance, has started to make some tangible steps towards renewable redemption. Efforts to improve cloud sustainability has been further demonstrated by the creation of the Green Grid Association, a non profit consortium of cloud providers, energy companies, and end users.

Ultimately, the cloud processes and stores data. For that it needs power, and due to sheer demand, it can’t always come from renewable sources. As such, it’s important to be wary of the cloud’s green reputation. That said, cloud computing is far less wasteful and resource heavy than in house data servers. The question is whether cloud technology will be able to deal with exponential amounts of data without using non renewable power at all, and which provider will be the first to get there…

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