The cloud and your firm’s carbon footprint

15 Oct 2011

The school of thought that cloud computing can help businesses globally reduce their carbon footprint needs to move from notion to fact.

A statistic emerged in recent years that revealed how 2pc of emissions from the ICT industry is responsible for the same proportion of the carbon emissions of the airline industry. If firms are to be convinced that cloud computing is indeed the way forward, then that figure needs to be reduced.

As cloud computing continues to be all the rage, those in the area of sustainability are debating its green credentials. A recent study – Cloud Computing and Sustainability: The Environmental Benefits of Moving to the Cloud – found that companies running applications in the cloud could reduce their carbon emissions by 30pc or more compared with running those same applications in their own infrastructures. The study was commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy, an environmental consulting group.

Cloud computing is also being lauded for its environmental and financial benefits in a new study released by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which predicts that companies that embrace cloud computing can realise US$12.3bn in energy savings and 85.7 metric tonnes of CO2 savings annually by 2020.

The CDP study, Cloud Computing – The IT Solution for the 21st Century, which was carried out by the analyst research firm Verdantix, looks at how ICT is a key area firms are now looking at to help them achieve low-carbon business models.

With the Department of Energy indicating that data centres may be consuming 3pc of total US electricity today, the report predicts that companies are planning to accelerate their adoption of cloud computing from 10pc to 69pc of their IT spend by 2020.

The CDP says many of the firms interviewed cited cost savings as a primary motivator for opting for the cloud, with anticipated cost reductions as high as 40-50pc. It predicts that large US firms which use cloud computing can achieve annual energy savings of US$12.3bn and annual carbon reductions that are equivalent to 200m barrels of oil, which would be enough to power 5.7m cars for one year.

“Finding providers and partners that can take some of your energy-using operations to scale, and manage them in a shared capacity, is good for both business’ carbon footprint and its bottom line,” said the sustainability business expert Andrew Winston, who is also the author of Green Recovery and Green to Gold, in the report.

Sustainability and the role of IT

CDP executive chairman Paul Dickinson points to the ICT sector’s role in helping to drive sustainability.

“A large percentage of global GDP is reliant on ICT – this is a critical issue as we strive to decouple economic growth from emissions growth. The carbon emissions-reducing potential of cloud computing is a thrilling breakthrough, allowing companies to maximise performance, drive down costs, reduce inefficiency and minimise energy use – and therefore carbon emissions – all at the same time.”

Google recently published its energy usage figures, revealing that its CO2 footprint – at almost 1.5m tonnes per year – is all down to the cloud: doing more with less.

Google said that in providing everything from Google+ to Gmail, its servers use less energy per user than a light left on for three hours. “And, because we’ve been a carbon-neutral company since 2007, even that small amount of energy is offset completely, so the carbon footprint of your life on Google is zero,” said Urs Hoelzle, senior vice-president, Technical Infrastructure on the Google Green site.

In Ireland, the growing cluster of data centres are not only fuelling the country’s reputation as the ‘Internet Capital’ of Europe, but many are citing their operations here as examples of green efficiency. Microsoft, for example, has constructed a US$1bn data centre in west Dublin that uses Ireland’s prevailing winds to cool its servers.

Environmental impact

Another firm that is using Ireland’s ambient temperatures to keep its state-of-the-art data centres cool is pan-European data centre provider Interxion, which has invested more than €20m in expanding its Dublin operations.

“Ireland is the gateway for US firms coming into Europe and data centres are key,” explains Interxion’s Tanya Duncan. “The top eight technology companies in the world have operations here.”

She says that for any CIO or IT manager, green initiatives that utilise cloud computing lead to efficiencies and ultimately cost savings.

“Our data centres use free cooling – instead of typical refrigeration that uses energy to cool the water; we use the ambient air temperature to do that. When the temperature outside is below 16 degrees we can use the water to cool the equipment. We also have a modular building regime so that instead of building everything on day one, we add components as we need them so there’s no equipment on standby.

“It’s not only about deploying this infrastructure, but ultimately how you manage, it as well. So for cloud computing to work, the people who manage the infrastructure have to prove how efficient they are at managing it,” Duncan says.

Hosting provider OVH is also turning making the most of its green credentials to drive lower-carbon footprint for its customers but better value, too. OVH Ireland manager Jane Kinghan explains that a new way of building its data centres, which she enigmatically calls ‘The Cube’, is driving efficiencies for private cloud customers.

“It costs very little to cool and that means we can pass the savings on to the customers,” she said.

“We would manage over 100,000 servers in our data centres and private cloud customers need equipment that’s always on, but it is critical that they in turn can demonstrate to customers and shareholders their carbon footprint.

“We have invested in wind turbines and other alternative energy means to allow firms to power their servers and do so in the knowledge that they are keeping their costs and their carbon footprint down,” says Kinghan.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years