A lot of people in the IT industry have an intuitive grasp of how cloud computing processes make business systems greener, but some concrete studies are shoring up this idea, which has grown along with the new emergence of diversified cloud computing systems from a wide variety of vendors.

One case in point is a recent article on a study from the International Journal of Business Process Integration and Management conducted by the University of Applied Science, Upper Austria. Scientists monitored a particular case study where a business saved over 50% of its carbon footprint by utilizing cloud computing solutions, specifically, electronic invoicing.

As this study points out, the cloud delivers a two-point solution for really cutting down on traditional energy costs. The first point is in moving invoicing and other processes from paper to digital platforms, so that businesses don't need to invest in cutting down more trees and shipping the wood pulp, then the paper, around the world. The second point is in redistributing server hardware and other resources to make systems more efficient.

The Multi-Tenancy Model

As cloud systems have grown over the last few years, they've grown according to certain models. One of them is the idea that cloud vendors offer multi-tenant systems. The carbon footprint savings are obvious.

The idea here is that rather than build its own hardware setups and server rooms, a company outsources its digital operations to the cloud. The energy costs for servers and hardware operations are borne by the vendor, and the vendor uses the same structures to serve multiple clients. There’s completely separate security, data access, etc., but the hardware can multi-task and handle more than one firm’s networking demands.

Isn't this just pushing the costs onto someone else's plate? Well, maybe in some ways, but some of the key benefits of multi-tenant models also cut down on each client’s energy use.

Essentially, single-client server rooms, with their particular environmental controls and power draws, are quite inefficient. Harvard Business Review reported on this issue as early as 2011, and writer Andrew Winston showed how in some cases, less than 4% of data center energy is going to processing, with a significant portion going to "idle servers," and the lion’s share going to cooling.

Here, Winston suggests that cloud can help reduce carbon footprints by up to a staggering 90%, in part by doing things like flattening peak loads and streamlining data centers with virtualization and other strategies, but also by scaling systems differently, which, provided there are no risks of data "cross-contamination," just makes good business sense.

In the same article, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist Rob Bernard provides a very telling metaphor for multi-tenant cloud services: he likens the shared data center to carpooling or using public transit.

In a fundamental sense, that's a very accurate comparison. All of those server rooms and hardware structures that would have been set up all over the place are now sourced in one particular location. That means it's easier to cool systems, and that they're much more energy-efficient overall.

Choosing the Greenest Cloud Suppliers

In addition to the massive energy savings that companies can get with the cloud, there's also the possibility of going even further by using the vendors with the most dedication to energy-efficient operations.

With this in mind, cloud computing vendors are plugging environmental concerns into their business models, and a new generation of "green cloud companies" are sprouting up. Take this example from GreenQloud, a data center service provider in Seattle, Washington, an area of the United States known for its progressive stance on energy use. A 2013 press release from the company shows the its plans to provide renewable-energy-powered data center operations. It also shows how GreenQloud chooses locations for its data centers based on the sustainable energy solutions that are available.

Private Cloud

Within this context, cloud computing companies are also offering "private cloud" services as a kind of gold card model for individual clients. Some companies claim that they can still get the carbon footprint reductions without the multi-tenant models. However, all things being equal, it stands to reason that deeper carbon footprint cuts will be achieved by scalable multi-tenant models.

All of this is excellent news for American businesses. In a nation that faces a reputation for lack of climate change response, businesses can get out in front of the pack with green cloud solutions that are actually based on significant energy savings. That's a win-win for all of us, as the nation continues to struggle to adopt some form of measurable incentive for greenhouse gas reductions. We may not be able to snap our fingers and produce the right bridge fuel for the 21st century, but we can make sure that our businesses are using design models that cut deeply into the energy budgets that they used back in the days before the digital age.