The Environmental Impact of Cloud Computing: Efficiency and Sustainability

 “We thrive and survive on planet earth as a single human family. And one of our main responsibilities is to leave to successor generations a sustainable future.” Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan

There is a lot of buzz today around the term cloud services, a general term that includes cloud computing and cloud storage resources on demand over an information and communications technology network like the one AT&T operates. Companies procure IT services, not assets, and AT&T delivers services when and where they’re needed. Companies pay only for what they use, and this efficiency helps organizations increase return on investment (ROI) and lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

Industry analysts, consulting firms and the like have conducted numerous studies on the subject, and the majority of these reports conclude that indeed, cloud computing is very beneficial in improving both ROI and TCO. It’s hard to argue the advantages of paying for “what you need, when you need it,” versus operating an on-premise, dedicated environment that is burdensome to maintain and often times underutilized.   Profitability, scalability and flexibility are inherent benefits in “the cloud.” It is my belief that corporate responsibility is an additional benefit. Consuming shared resources virtually allows organizations to significantly improve their sustainability efforts.

How does cloud computing help with sustainability goals? Let’s use transportation as a model. Picture a single rider in a single car and multiply that by many single rider/single car scenarios on the road. Today, we understand that driving our cars creates greenhouse gas emissions, and that driving less frequently helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Think about programs that encourage public transportation via bus, train or metro service. In many of our nation’s largest cities, millions are spent to encourage carpooling and ride shares. A vast amount of U.S. cities invest in High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that reward multi-rider vehicles. There is proof that sharing resources, in this case transportation resources, has a positive and significant impact on our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Applying this example, arguably there are improvements to sustainability capabilities by consolidating from a single computing site to a shared virtual computing environment. Why is that? For one, a single site rarely fully utilizes the bandwidth available to it, at least not around the clock. Instead, it builds its computing resources to cover peaks in computing needs with a dash of extra bandwidth buffer (just in case). It’s costly and certainly not as efficient. With cloud computing, organizations virtually consume computing capabilities via a shared site or center. Sure those virtual machines use energy and need to be maintained, but it isn’t unlike taking the many single cars off the road and replacing them with a bus or train (a shared resource) to gain economies of scale. This not only improves utilization, it reduces many individual energy needs to a single, shared energy source.

While many of us understand the benefits of cloud services in terms of ROI and TCO, we’re only beginning to skim the surface of their additional sustainability benefits.

Monica Liming-Hu About Monica