The Cloud Paradox: Less Energy Used, More Energy Wasted
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on October 31, 2019 |

The cloud is now a part of our daily lives, so much so that many of us likely take it for granted as a means for storing our documents and streaming our favorite shows. And by all indications, it will only be getting bigger.

If the IT sector was a country, it would use more electricity than Russia. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace.)

If the IT sector was a country, it would use more electricity than Russia. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace.)

According to LogicMonitor and Forbes, 83 percent of a company’s business will be cloud-based by 2020. Last year IDC predicted the demand for cloud hardware such as servers, Ethernet switches and enterprise storage products would grow 10.9 percent. And, by 2020, the cloud will host 40 zettabytes of data (a single zettabyte is one sextillion, 1021 bytes); that’s about 5.2 terabytes of data per human on Earth.

To understand the energy requirements of cloud computing, and how to manage them effectively, we explored the existing research.

The Footprint of the Cloud

When it first emerged, cloud computing felt a bit mysterious and amorphous—like a cloud—but its widescale adoption has made it an incredibly easy-to-understand concept: large, IT infrastructure shared over the internet.

The adoption of cloud computing carries a range of benefits for enterprise users, including the ability of globally dispersed teams to access business data and documents virtually anywhere. Moreover, companies no longer have to shoulder the burden of housing complex and expensive servers that need to be maintained by trained IT staff. As businesses, organizations and whole governments shift over to the cloud, bringing consumers and citizens along with them, the energy requirements of the technology have increased.

A 2012 study found that data center electricity consumption represented about 2 percent of global electricity demand at about 300TWh/year. By 2030, this energy usage is projected to increase by 3– 10 times that amount, with higher estimates suggesting that data center demand could reach 13 percent of total electricity consumption worldwide.

Fortunately, while the cloud does consume significant electricity and, as a result, produce a small chunk of the world’s emissions, it can also be more energy efficient than on-site IT and data storage.

Cloud Computing Brings Efficiency to Data Storage

By shifting the burden of housing complex and expensive servers to businesses dedicated to cloud computing, data storage overall becomes more energy efficient. In a 2018 study, Microsoft compared the embodied greenhouse gas emissions of four of its cloud computing products with those of on-site IT and data storage solutions.

Azure Compute and Azure Storage were included for the corporation’s infrastructure-as-a-service products and Exchange Online and SharePoint Online were included as software-as-a-service products.These were matched against the carbon footprints of physical and virtual servers, direct attached storage and dedicated storage, and a variety of deployment sizes, ranging from small (1,000 users) to large (100,000 users).

Energy savings generated from the use of Microsoft Cloud products. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
Energy savings generated from the use of Microsoft Cloud products. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

The results found that relying on cloud computing could increase a business’s energy efficiency by 22 to 93 percent. Most of this improvement in emission reductions was gained through decreased electricity consumption via datacenters running in the cloud. Much of the reduction in energy and carbon footprint came from improved IT operational efficiency, equipment efficiency and datacenter infrastructure efficiency. This was further improved by Microsoft’s own purchase of renewable electricity consumed by its datacenters.

A separate study conducted by the Carbon Disclosure Project studied the cloud infrastructure of 11 companies that used the cloud. It determined that a public cloud can potentially reduce the CO2 emissions of a “typical food and beverage firm transitioning its human resources (HR) application from dedicated IT” by 30,000 metric tons over five years, roughly the equivalent of 5,900 passenger cars. Use of an internal cloud, instead of public cloud, could reduce its footprint by 25,000 metric tons over five years, or about 4,900 passenger cars.

Despite the gains in energy efficiency realized through cloud adoption, a Greenpeace study pointed out potential obstacles that must be considered as a shift to cloud infrastructure occurs.

Jevon’s Paradox

What is often lost in discussions about sustainable energy is something referred to as Jevon’s Paradox. This concept demonstrates that, as energy efficiency increases, so does the consumption of resources due to the demand spurred by lower costs.

A 2017 Greenpeace report illustrated the paradox with the following example: “With the marginal cost of memory, CPU and bandwidth are tending toward zero, with the resulting proliferation of so many ‘free’ and ‘unlimited’ online services like YouTube and Netflix, the impressive efficiency gains achieved in delivering cloud-based computing services would appear to already be serving to significantly increase overall data center power consumption.”

The report points out that, by 2020, video streaming traffic will represent over 80 percent of total consumer internet traffic. In fact, video streaming makes up 71 percent of downstream data during peak usage period in North and South America, with Netflix responsible for 35.2 percent of that data.

While this may not be an issue in and of itself, if somehow energy efficiencies gained in the cloud can make up for electricity used by consumers, the rate of the cloud’s growth could potentially be problematic. If the cloud grows faster than sustainable energy systems replace fossil fuels, the cloud may receive more of its electricity from dirty sources.

The study highlights the fact that there are parts of the world still heavily reliant on coal and other fossil fuels, but cloud and colocation companies like AWS and Digital Realty continue to build significant data center projects in these locations: “While important progress has been made in driving renewable energy investment in several markets, the dramatic increase in the number of data centers in markets such as Virginia, dominated by utilities that have little to no renewable energy, is driving a similarly dramatic increase in the consumption of coal and natural gas.”

Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Your Servers

Organizations such as Greenpeace rank cloud providers on their energy practices to help businesses reduce their carbon impact. For instance, AWS offers hosting in four “carbon neutral” regions (though Greenpeace derides AWS for a lack of transparency overall, including its definition of “carbon neutral”).Microsoft has a “B” grade as a corporation generally, with one-third of its electricity coming from renewables. Go Climate Neutral has also developed a guide for businesses outlining how to reduce the carbon footprint of one’s cloud usage.

A snippet from Greenpeace’s rating of Microsoft’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace.)
A snippet from Greenpeace’s rating of Microsoft’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace.)


A snippet from Greenpeace’s rating of AWS’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace.)
A snippet from Greenpeace’s rating of AWS’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace.)

While building on-site renewable energy systems may be a possibility for large corporations, locating a business or data center in an area already replete with renewable energy is not always easy. This is why the report includes various corporate commitments to sustainability in the form of power purchase agreements (PPAs), in which an energy producer (rather than a local utility) sells electricity to a customer sometimes bundled with renewable energy credits. PPAs are the dominant means by which corporations purchase renewable energy. 

On the left, a diagram of a physical PPA. On the right, a virtual PPA. (Images courtesy of Global Renewable Hub.)
On the left, a diagram of a physical PPA. On the right, a virtual PPA. (Images courtesy of Global Renewable Hub.)

For companies that are hosting servers on-site, there are further ways to improve the technology’s impact on the ecosystem, based on IBM’s Research Triangle Park facility in North Carolina.The site performs continuous adjustments to the temperature and humidity of the environment, cutting electricity costs by 15 percent per year.

Additional ecofriendly features include a reflective roof to reduce solar heat, a rainwater collection system, the use of low-sulfur fuels for backup generators and energy efficient lighting on timers. The site was also constructed using 20 percent recycled materials; 95 percent of the original building shell structure was used and 92 percent of the waste from construction was recycled.

Other methods that may ultimately be deployed to reduce the carbon footprint of the cloud are algorithms that redistribute tasks among networked data centers to optimize energy efficiency.


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