Is cloud computing and Green IT mutual exclusive?

by Alexander Weiß

In the last two years two IT themes were particularly hyped: cloud computing and Geen IT. Sustainability found its way to IT from outside, whereas cloud computing is a child of IT. Although their origin is different, both have in common, that they are discussed widely in mainstream media. But is cloud computing a green alternative to on-premise computing?

Most people would intuitionally answer this question with no. But our gut feelings are sometimes completely off the real world. Luckily there are many studies available about this topic and we don’t have to do some research by ourselves. In this post I’ll summarize a study which is the result of the cooperation of Microsoft, Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy. It is from 2010, but I think it doesn’t make it outdate. You can download the full paper her.

Is cloud computing and Green it mutual exclusive?

Is cloud computing and Green it mutual exclusive?

The study focused on the three Microsoft products Exchange, SharePoint and Dynamics CRM. Although the choice is limited to Microsoft products it is a good one, because you can easily compare the carbon footprint of on-premise and cloud installations.

The conclusion of the study is that cloud computing can save a lot of CO2 emission. The smaller the company and their user base is, the bigger the saves are. Before I want to give a detailed explanation of the reasons, I want to outline the core argument, because all the other arguments are deprived from it. Small companies can’t afford to and don’t need to build the most efficient datacenters, because the costs of running the datacenter is pretty low compared to the other costs the business is facing. For cloud computing companies it is the complete opposite: running datacenters is their core business. If they manage to reduce the energy costs and therefor reduce the CO2 emissions they can save a lot of money and make their business more profitable.

Cloud computing – the green way for IT

There are four areas in which the cloud computing companies operate in a greener way:

Dynamic Provisioning: IT managers usually deploy more server, networking and storage infrastructure than what is necessary, because they want to be flexible and don’t be the bottleneck if the business suddenly needs e.g. more storage. The needed capacity can change dynamically and managing the capacity in a way, that there are no wasted resources and no lack of resources, is time consuming and sometimes even impossible.  Last but not least, budget policies exist, which encourage the use of the whole IT budget of a year, even if the investments are necessary or not. The often result in the purchase of hardware which isn’t needed and hence consume energy for no benefit. Managing these dynamics is part of the core business of cloud computing providers. So they are much better at providing only the infrastructure which is really needed.

Multi-Tenancy: The energy savings of multiple tenants of a car are pretty obvious since car sharing got popular. The same effect is noticeable in cloud computing. The more people you can bring together under one roof, the less energy gets consumed.

Server Utilization: Servers in the cloud run at a very high level of utilization compared to on-premise servers, because cloud services are completely virtualized and the boundaries of hardware don’t exist. On-premise datacenter start to utilize the benefits of virtualization more and more, but they are often not coming close to the cloud computing providers. Cloud computing companies have more knowledge and resources to make heavy use of virtualization, because it is their daily bread and butter. This gap will close in the future, though, because virtualization gets easier to manage and more and more common.

Data Center Efficiency: Data Center Efficiency is also an area where cloud computing companies are ahead of typical on-premise datacenters. The average power usage effectiveness ratio factor is around 1.9, which means that for every Watt that is put into running IT hardware 0.9 Watt is used to operate the non IT hardware. In modern datacenters this factor can be reduced to 1.2. One of the reasons of this enormous reduction can be the location. Cloud computing datacenters are often built in cooler parts of the earth, where the cooling of the servers is way easier than in warm places.

There are other minor factors which make cloud computing more efficient and more sustainable than on-premise computing. I don’t want to go into detail here, because I think I gave enough reasons why our gut feeling was right once more. 😉 If you are interested in the other factors you can look them up in the study. In the Appendix of the study you can find more information about how the study was done and which criteria were accounted.

The future of Green IT and sustainability

Before I end this post I want to put the results of this study in the right light, though. Although cloud computing gets more efficient it doesn’t mean that IT can lay back. Green IT and sustainability will always play an important part because energy costs money and saving energy means more money. Besides that, today server operate with the same amount of energy a hundred times more efficient than a few years ago. However, this doesn’t mean that the carbon footprint of IT goes down. During the same time the need for computing power raised by ten thousands. So even IT gets more and more efficient in using energy they need more and more of it. So Green IT or reducing energy consumption will always be a topic IT has to deal with.

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