Companies worldwide are becoming increasingly aware of their impacts on the environment. And as such, the need for sustainable solutions — in particular, cloud computing — has never been more critical.
Traditional IT infrastructures often generate significant carbon emissions and consume massive amounts of energy.
The demand for computing power in today’s digital age is unparalleled, says Bob Brauer, founder and CEO of Interzoid, a data usability consultancy and generative AI-powered data quality solutions provider.
“As we stand on the brink of a massive surge in artificial intelligence adoption, an inherently data-intensive technology, our collective hunger for computing power, and the electricity to fuel this demand are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon,” he says.
“However, the widespread shift to cloud computing is helping to decrease the IT sector’s carbon footprint, guiding us toward digital sustainability.”
By centralizing and efficiently using computing resources, cloud computing ensures that the Earth’s own resources aren’t overexploited during this innovation frenzy, he adds.
Traditional on-premises IT infrastructure often consumes significant energy due to inadequate resource management and allocation, says Amol Dalvi, vice president of product at Nerdio, which helps companies deploy virtual desktops in Microsoft Azure.
“On-prem systems are not easily scalable to meet fluctuating demand, resulting in energy over-consumption over time, which has led many businesses to consider cloud-based services in an effort to go green,” he says.
With today’s ever-evolving technological innovations, most businesses have migrated at least some of their services and business applications to cloud-hosted providers, including Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, and Google, says Jeremy Rambarran, a professor at Touro University Graduate School of Technology.
“By using a cloud provider’s physical infrastructure, the business can greatly reduce the money previously spent on maintaining and running their cooling and electrical systems,” he says. “And as a large amount of equipment will no longer be required in-house, businesses can reduce their office space overall, which in turn will greatly cut overhead costs and reduce their carbon footprint.”
Here are five ways cloud computing can help organizations go green:
Data Center Infrastructure Efficiency
One environmental advantage of moving to the cloud comes from how hyperscalers, such as Microsoft, manage their own data centers, says Dalvi.
“For example, each component of overhead tasks, such as lighting, cooling, and power conditioning, are monitored by Microsoft, which leads to better power usage effectiveness, meaning organizations can use less energy than an enterprise would with on-premises infrastructures,” he says.
Unlike traditional IT infrastructures that require energy-intensive, air-conditioned physical spaces and dedicated servers, cloud providers, such as AWS, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and Google Cloud, carefully select data center locations based on energy costs and utilization, says Tim Jones, managing director of application modernization at Advanced, a provider of application modernization services.
“By moving to the cloud, organizations can take advantage of these efficiencies, reducing their energy usage, emissions, and costs compared to on-premises IT,” Jones says. “The cloud can also shift businesses away from the need to manage physical hardware, its maintenance, disposal, and associated environmental regulations.”
However, not all data centers are created equal, notes Jaret Chiles, chief services officer at DoiT International, a provider of cloud cost management technology and services.
He says that the significant hyperscalers have been leaders in efficiently powering their gigantic data centers as they have a huge incentive. Simply moving infrastructure to a hyperscale cloud significantly reduces emissions without doing anything else.
However, for organizations that would like to do even more to reduce their carbon emissions, it’s worth noting that not all locations are the same shade of “green,” according to Chiles.
“Google Cloud, for example, provides data on the percentage of carbon-free energy used by each of its data centers,” he says. “Its Oregon location uses 89% carbon-free energy while its Tokyo data center is at just 16%. Organizations can vastly reduce their carbon footprint by locating their workloads in greener cloud data centers.”
Improve IT Equipment Efficiency
Technology waste is another factor that increases an organization’s environmental footprint. According to Dalvi, both physical devices and a poor end-user experience contribute heavily to high energy usage, leading companies to consider desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) solutions as greener options for efficient IT operations.
“Companies often replace user hardware, such as laptops and desktops, with new devices every three years to ensure performance efficiency,” he says. “However, this routine maintenance and replacement of employee devices can lead to a proliferation of technical waste and ultimately unnecessary budget depletion. This process can be avoided if organizations use DaaS instead.”
Cloud computing uses a shared infrastructure model that allows multiple companies to use the same resources, says Andrew Meyer, CEO of Arbor, a digital energy advisor.
“When you pool these physical resources together, you’re not only increasing efficiency, you’re also reducing your environmental impact because you’re avoiding redundant infrastructure,” he says. “Cloud computing also allows you to scale as you see fit. So if you’re not ready yet or having a downturn, you’re not wasting any energy.”
Additionally, Meyer says many cloud providers use renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and other clean energy projects, to power their data centers. This helps reduce their carbon footprint, and businesses indirectly benefit from these renewable energy choices.
Promote Remote Work
Craig Routledge, executive director of hybrid cloud at Lenovo, says cloud-based collaboration tools and remote work solutions have become essential for many enterprises that want to support a remote or hybrid workforce.
“Switching to cloud or hybrid architecture allows organizations to reduce the costs required to operate multiple offices and the impact created by employees commuting and business travel,” he says.
Because cloud computing helps promote remote work, it puts less strain on transportation infrastructure and decreases fuel requirements, Brauer says. Thanks to online communication platforms, such as Zoom, even business meetings no longer require travel.
Seth Besse, CEO of Undivided.io, a caregiver support platform, concurs that cloud-based collaboration tools and applications drive remote work, which is good for the planet.
“When employees don’t have to commute daily to a physical office, it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “The air becomes cleaner, streets become less congested, and noise pollution diminishes.”
This not only contributes to a healthier and more pleasant local environment, but it also leads to cost savings for individuals who no longer need to spend money on fuel, parking, or public transportation — not to mention the money they’ll save on car maintenance and repairs, Besse says.
Companies with comprehensive growth strategies must account for long-term environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals that exist up and down their supply chains, says Misha Kuperman, chief reliability officer and general manager at cloud security company Zscaler.
With its energy-efficient infrastructure and scalability, cloud computing provides a technological foundation for achieving ESG goals.
“Businesses that want to demonstrate their responsiveness and responsibility for carbon emissions should take advantage of the benefits of cloud computing to reduce their environmental footprints and become more resilient to global environmental changes,” Kuperman says.
Additionally, cloud-based solution providers are also setting goals and taking steps to ensure their data centers either use renewable energy or that their data center operations are offset by credits that balance environmental impact, he says.
“For example, Zscaler has set a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2025, Kuperman says. “This goal comes on the heels of us achieving 100% renewable energy in 2021 and becoming carbon neutral in 2022.”
While business motives primarily drive the path to greener operations, the environmental benefits achieved by the industry have been clear and compelling, Interzoid’s Brauer says. As AI advancements and digital modernization amplify the requirement for powerful computing resources, the industry is poised to pair this growth with innovation toward ongoing environmental sustainability.
To move forward, IT infrastructure can only be “greened” through improving energy efficiency, hardware efficiency, and carbon awareness, says Chris Lloyd-Jones, head of open innovation at Avanade, an IT services and consulting company. Moving to the cloud allows for economies of scale that aren’t possible on-premises, from shared cooling and energy sources to ensuring servers are fully utilized.
Ultimately, organizations need to think about where their resources came from and how best to utilize them, Lloyd-Jones says.
“Ecosystem partners will expect organizations to show how they are limiting the use of resources across their IT infrastructures, baselining where they are and then taking continued action to drive efficiency,” he says. “It’s time for a culture shift to prioritize environmental sustainability without hindering innovation and growth.”