26 Jul

Cloud Computing Reduces Businesses’ Environmental Impact

Once vilified as energy hogs destined to destroy the environment, today’s data centers run more efficiently than ever before and tax U.S. energy resources far less than previously expected. Due to advances in technology, modern servers are more energy conscious, require less power to operate and have better internal cooling systems that reduce reliance on external air conditioning units. The cumulative effect allows data centers to provide safe, secure and extensible server space without draining the country’s energy supplies.

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab reveals that data center energy use is expected to increase a mere four percent between 2014 and 2020. When compared to the 24 percent increase between 2005 and 2010, it’s clear that cloud computing plays a supporting role in stabilizing energy usage in the U.S.

Furthermore, while the number of new data center servers needed to accommodate the growing demand for cloud computing continues to rise, the overall server growth rate is on a steady decline. Following a yearly 15 percent increase between 2000 and 2005, the server growth rate dropped to 5 percent between 2005 and 2010. After 2010, it slowed to 3 percent, where researchers say it will remain through 2020.


Dedicated Servers vs. Data Centers

At first, it may seem like in-house servers have an energy consumption advantage over cloud computing, but that’s usually not the case. In fact, in some instances, the smaller the business, the greater the environmental impact. Startups and SMBs running dedicated servers aren’t as energy efficient as large server warehouses that are specifically designed to achieve maximum output and productivity with a minimum of environmental resources. 

For example, Atlanta-based Internap Network Services built a new data center in California that features automated, high-efficiency lighting that reduces the building’s energy consumption by about 47 percent than similar data centers, reports GreenBiz. INS also purchased renewable energy credits to further solidify the company’s efforts to minimize its environmental impact. Small businesses typically lack the budget, space and technical expertise to build the infrastructure that matches what data centers can provide. 


Companies Taking Advantage of Cloud Services

According to a 2013 Berkeley Lab analysis, it is worth it for businesses to move their applications to the cloud to save energy. The reports claims that if U.S. businesses transitioned their email, productivity software and CRM software to the cloud, they could reduce the energy footprint by 87 percent.

Minnesota nonprofit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) is a good example of a real company taking advantage of the cloud. RREAL delivers solar energy to low-income markets and its staff relies on Office 365 and SharePoint to keep in-house, telecommuting and traveling employees connected and in sync. While working to set up a solar electric microgrid in Liberia, RREAL’s director Jason Edens relied heavily on Microsoft’s cloud-based platforms to collaborate with his team back in the U.S. Edens and his staff digitally transmitted building measurements, sketches and other collaboration documents, eliminating the need to send paper files through emissions-heavy package delivery services and air mail. 

The U.S. General Services Administration is another positive example. Prior to moving to the cloud, it employed a whopping 324 servers to handle email and collaboration for 16,700 users. By migrating to Google Apps, the agency reduced its total number of servers to 61 at a cost savings of 82 percent per user. The GSA’s annual server energy consumption per user dropped 89 percent and its annual carbon emissions from server energy decreased from 1,860 metric tonnes to a mere 290 tonnes. 


Next Steps

To analyze the environmental and financial impact of moving business systems to the cloud, business owners can plug data into the free CLEER (Cloud Energy and Emissions Research) Model. This tool gives them an instant assessment of the potential cost and energy savings migrating to the cloud would give them and helps them budget and strategize before they take the plunge.

When shopping for cloud services, business owners also should ask vendors about their commitment to saving energy. The National Resources Defense Council recommends CIOs ask their cloud service providers for “full disclosure of the carbon-efficiency of the services they offer, and consider all the key variables that contribute to the energy savings and carbon impact of computing options for SMOs.”

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