Footprints in the cloud: Achieving far more with far less

By John Pflueger, Principal Environmental Strategist, Dell

Cloud computing investments are increasing at an extraordinary rate. Quite clearly, enterprises of all sizes and kinds have recognized the cloud’s power to reduce costs and increase agility. Executive stakeholders across the spectrum – CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and others – have come to the conclusion that cloud-based strategies and solutions are directly tied to their own performance.

Energy costs, in particular, are an obvious source for those cost reductions as research spearheaded by Accenture showed several years ago. They cited four key factors that enable cloud computing to lower energy use and carbon emissions compared to traditional IT approaches:

  • Dynamic Provisioning: Reducing wasted computing resources through better matching server capacity with actual demand.
  • Multi-Tenancy: Flattening relative peak loads by serving large numbers of organizations and users on shared infrastructure.
  • Server Utilization: Operating servers at higher utilization rates.
  • Data Center Efficiency: Utilizing advanced data center infrastructure designs that reduce power loss through improved cooling, power conditioning, etc.

In addition to these approaches, other initiatives in the IT industry, such as fresh-air cooling and modular data centers, are improving the energy consumption profile of data centers.

What’s clear is that public, private and hybrid cloud solutions can deliver a reduced footprint relative to conventional IT approaches where servers and other infrastructure are massively underutilized. Indeed, the Accenture study notes that organizations can reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent to 90 percent through cloud-based deployments of IT solutions when comparisons are made to conventional IT deployments.

“Companies who adopt cloud computing will accrue the inherent business benefits of this technology, and will also play a crucial role in making IT more sustainable by significantly reducing energy consumption,” the study states.

But that’s not the whole story. As environmentally minded critics of today’s IT boom have pointed out, the aggregate demand for IT services is also growing as activities move to the cloud.

While it may not be intuitive to the average consumer, every photo stored on Pinterest and every video streamed on NetFlix has some environmental footprint. Servers must be purchased to store, process, and deliver data of all kinds. Energy must be generated to run those servers – and the demand is vast.

According to data from Stanford University’s Jonathan Koomey, servers and data centers are responsible for between 1.1 percent and 1.5 percent of the world’s total electricity use.  And analysts predict data use will triple between 2012 and 2017 to reach 121 exabytes (121 billion gigabytes), states Time Magazine.

So as the data grows, so does the potential environmental footprint of the cloud. But footprint isn’t just about energy consumption – it’s also about where that energy comes from. According to Harvard Business School’s Gregory Norris, an organization’s footprint is “the sum total of all the negative impacts of pollution released and resources consumed” when business is conducted and products are produced.

Even as we continue to find ways to become more efficient in the cloud, the sheer scale of operations mean we must look at the carbon associated with generating the energy: It’s not just how you use energy, it’s also about how you source energy.

According to the International Energy Agency, approximately two-thirds of global electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels in 2014. This generates carbon pollution.  And while the renewably generated electricity markets continue to grow, they will not be supplanting fossil fuels in the near future. Using electricity thus tends to increase your carbon footprint.

Cloud providers are aware of this and have shown increasing interest in managing, even reducing, carbon emissions. That explains why a growing number of cloud service providers and cloud-based companies are seeking ways to produce energy through renewable sources – whether hydroelectric, wind, geothermal, or solar.  Companies are serious about reducing the footprints of their data centers and ensuring their strategic paths to growth are environmentally sustainable.

Of course, there will doubtless be trade-offs to evaluate along the way. Cloud computing now delivers enormous gains in terms of economic growth, innovative research, and medical breakthroughs. Striking an appropriate balance between such advances and their environmental impact will remain a critical consideration going forward.

As we will explore in other posts, there are even “handprints” we can make in the cloud – advances that would otherwise be impossible. Some of these handprints will offset or further reduce our footprints.

That said, it’s clear the cloud offers a way to combine economic efficiencies with environmental improvements. We accomplish far more with far less. Even as we reduce our footprints, we expand our potential – and usher in previously unimaginable forms of progress.

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