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Green cloud computing 101

Posted February 8, 2022
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The decentralization of work over the past two years has led to major growth in cloud computing adoption, a solution that enables millions of people around the world to work from home without skipping a beat.

In response, the number of data centers has exploded.

There’s just a slight problem: The data centers that power cloud computing have a gigantic appetite for electricity, and not all electricity is generated using renewable resources. NASDAQ notes that a medium-to-large-sized data center uses power densities 100 times greater than a typical office building. As well, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that data centers (excluding energy used for cryptocurrency mining) represent 1% of global electricity demand, and that figure is expected to rise to between 3–8% in the next decade.

Energy demands will only expand in the years to come as the world gains more usage of data-heavy technologies, like virtual reality, video collaboration and crypto mining.

Many technology leaders acknowledge this environmental impact and are incorporating sustainability into their overall corporate strategies. A recent TELUS International survey of tech leaders found that 68% believe a green cloud computing solution is important for their organization. This mission of applying sustainability measures to reduce data’s carbon footprint is being seen in line with other corporate social responsibility efforts.

Chart visualizing survey results to the question "How important is having a sustainable/green cloud computing solution for your organization?"

Fortunately, cloud platform companies such as Microsoft (Azure), Google and AWS are pushing for global adoption of green cloud computing. Read on to learn more about what green cloud computing is, its benefits and how an organization can adopt a more sustainable cloud computing strategy.

What is green cloud computing?

The pandemic signaled a paradigm shift in the way we work. According to Forbes, 25% of all professional jobs in North America will be remote by the end of 2022, and remote opportunities will continue to increase through 2023.

Remote work isn’t just about having people work from home. It’s also about putting company resources, software, files and other information in a place where everyone who needs them can access them at any given time. Now multiply that by the countless numbers of companies and sectors embracing the cloud.

At the same time, consider that only 20% of electricity in the U.S. is made from renewables, such as solar, wind and hydro. That means cloud computing is primarily powered by gas and coal, which remain the top energy sources in the world.

While it’s true that the cloud may replace even more carbon-intensive infrastructure and processes, it still has its own sizable footprint. Reducing this footprint is the primary goal of green cloud computing.

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The evolution of green cloud computing

Green cloud computing has its origins in the early 1990s, sparked by the creation of the Energy Star program by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Energy Star helped consumers understand how some devices can be made in more energy-efficient ways.

Today, the same can be done with the cloud. A variety of more sustainable options exist, including:

Carbon-aware job/workload scheduling: The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by electricity grids varies by time of day and location. As a 2021 research paper from Google entitled Carbon-Aware Computing for Datacenters notes, the industry has the potential to facilitate grid decarbonization by harnessing “load flexibility, not only to reduce emissions, but also to contribute to more robust, resilient and cost-efficient decarbonization of the grid.” Job scheduling during less carbon-intensive times is one key way to lower grid emissions.

Using alternative cooling methods and recycling heat: The servers inside of data centers generate a lot of heat, and more often than not that heat is not recycled. Considering that cooling and IT equipment can account for 90% of a data center’s power consumption, finding better solutions is a key way to improve sustainability. Luckily, there are many ways to accomplish this. The first is locating data centers in places with free cooling (cold air, sea water, etc.). Another is reusing the heat in areas with heating needs, such as nearby offices or residences. A third is supplementing the center’s power with solar panels, to reduce grid demand.

Optimizing equipment and processes: Reduce the amount of power your IT equipment draws by investing in high-efficiency servers, lights, fans and other pieces, while also reducing your frequency of replacement by using software that enables predictive maintenance. Also consider maximizing your hardware by using systems with different levels of reliability. Not every process demands the most critical level of reliability; instead, think about balancing reliability and energy use in a more sustainable way.

Even if you are just a company using the cloud, you can choose to work with a cloud service provider that works to offset the environmental impact. For example, Google Cloud recently launched Carbon Footprint, which helps organizations using the platform to see the environmental impact of their operations. This is part of the company’s larger promise to be running 24/7 on carbon-free energy by 2030.

The benefits of green cloud computing

The advantages afforded through green cloud computing are numerous, ranging from reducing your organization’s carbon emissions, to diminishing the amount of e-waste going to the landfill, to using less expensive, and sometimes even free, resources to help with cooling.

Beyond the direct environmental impacts, adopting green cloud technology can generate goodwill among stakeholders and improve the perception of your business among your clientele and in the general public. That’s not only true because it responds to our society’s climate crisis concerns, but also because businesses that proactively embrace new systems and technologies tend to be viewed more favorably in our tech-forward world than those that don’t.

And finally, the bigger picture: A company that holistically integrates economic, social and environmental goals and values across its entire organization stands to become more resilient than if those goals and values are applied in siloed efforts.

In that way, green cloud computing is one cornerstone in a broader approach to sustainability in business.

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