Cloud Computing and the Environment

I’ve been doing a lot of research on cloud computing at work over the past few months and one area that has really caught my attention is the impact of cloud computing on the environment.  I know TDL is more consumer tech focused, and my coverage of this topic comes in from more of a business angle, but I figure the technology involved and points raised may be of interest, so I figured I’d post it up.

It’s pretty easy to see the arguments for cloud computing as an SMB – flexible, more collaborative working, access to enterprise grade IT systems, reduced support overheads and so on.  And we’ve talked on previous posts about the cost benefits that can be realised through the use of cloud based IT services.  But it goes beyond this, and one area that hasn’t been explored greatly is the environmental impact associated with it. 

Cost savings that result from utilising cloud computing services stem in part from a reduction in energy costs – by moving to cloud based IT systems it follows that you will have less energy consuming servers in the office – but can also result from a number of other areas.  By having access to information from anywhere, savings can be made in transport (not having to travel to the office) and onsite fuel use (heating the office, lighting and so on).

So, on top of the key drivers of cost and flexibility is the environmental story.  But is it a good one?  Because if it is, we should be telling more people about it, right?!  I wanted to look at the link here and make some of my own observations to try and determine if this is indeed a story to be proud of.  As a responsible company, we are keen to do the right thing wherever we can for many reasons.  Firstly, it is in everyone’s interest, including our own to be a good neighbour and a good Earth citizen.  If we aren’t, or even if we show apathy in this then there is a very real possibility that future generations will suffer drastically as a result.  Secondly, there are business wins with being green.  Differentiation and competitive advantage, setting your products and services apart from the crowd.  Outwardly demonstrating a green bias may be enough to win out over tough competition. 

By moving information to the cloud it means that, as a company we are reducing our environmental impact for all the reasons discussed above.  But the big question is, as a result of this, whether or not the cloud service provider is creating an equal or greater carbon footprint in supplying these services.  If they are, then to class the savings we make as customers as green would be at best naive. 

In researching this I found some great and very informative articles including this one by James Urquhart on CNET.com.  The points put forward make an interesting read and I would recommend you take a look at the post in full, but to pull out a couple of key points from it:

  • The Cloud effectively commoditises computational resource, making it easier to access and use.  This may actually drive up usage although we will be doing more
  • "The increased efficiency of the hardware components in most cloud data centers and the increased utilization of these components mean that we are almost certainly doing more work per unit of energy consumed than before." (direct quote)
  • Having resources centralised into cloud data centres allows for some innovative ways to address green issues.  The example given is a system in Finland using heat generated within such data centres to heat homes in the city. 

Some of the comments allude to virtualisation, often a key component of cloud services.  To my mind, having resources virtualised within cloud data centres means more can be done with less and only used as required across multiple customers.  When considering SMB customers this, at the very least, has the potential to reduce the combined carbon footprint of businesses consolidated onto such a system.  I would also contend that people and customers storing and accessing data on the cloud leads to a diminishing requirement in terms of computing power at the customer site.  I think the rise of the atom CPU and mobile device use fits with this thinking.  Running a PC that takes less power to run than a lightbulb is an important factor when working out the green story. 

So to me the key points are this. 

  • Cloud computing by its commoditising nature is potentially facilitating the use of IT in ways we hadn’t planned or even imagined.  It is almost a paradox in that if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t be using computers in the way we do and so, from that standpoint, usage has gone up; but we are able to do these things more efficiently.
  • We are doing more with computers than ever before, and part of this is possibly due to the cloud.  Quantifying how or if we are helping the environment is almost impossible to quantify as the historical landscape doesn’t allow for comparison. 
  • Access from anywhere and the opportunity to collaborate from anywhere reduces the environmental impact of travelling
  • Virtualisation and centralisation have the potential to reduce IT impact on the environment.  All it takes is some innovation and creativity (as provided by the heat exchange example in Finland) and a critical mass of people buying into it. 

For me at this juncture, the opportunity for businesses to virtualise and make more efficient use of hardware is green.  The opportunity cloud computing affords to use much lower powered devices at the client end is green.  And the centralisation of resources, when combined with creative and innovative solutions is green. 

Whilst I don’t have any quantified data at this point (I hope to post at a later date when I do), I wanted to put forward some arguments that may help us reach an initial conclusion one way or the other. 

I recently had the pleasure of chairing an event along with other local business groups including local Chamber of Commerce chapters and Federation of Small Business branches.  High on everyone’s agenda was the environment – we had an entire section of the meeting devoted to "the colour of money".  No longer is it just red or black, but increasingly it’s green.  We talked about all the reasons a business may want to consider the environment and the help available to make it happen (of which there is a lot).  It is becoming a hot topic and, if the anticipated statutory changes are realised, it will pay companies to get ahead of the game, to budget and plan so they are compliant from the get-go. 

And having looked at the business case for cloud computing, I think on balance there is a positive environmental story (all be it one that needs to be quantified) .  We should be shouting about it.  I think we should factor it into our decision making.  I think being green in and of itself makes great business sense   And at this point I think the green story around cloud computing is a good one and believe it is in everyones interest to succeed.

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One thought on “Cloud Computing and the Environment

  1. Hi Sheldon, such an informative article! I completely agree with you that cloud technology is not only helping in improving the productivity and efficiency of the business processes. But it is also helping to go green and do our bit to save the environment.

    One can easily practice cloud technology for day-to-day work processes like scanning and storing documents on cloud instead of printing them. Virtual meetings with clients can be organized online to save fuel as all the applications and data can be accessed from any geographical location.

    Thank you for providing such deep insight to cloud technology, and I believe we can create a better environment with cloud.

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