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Is Cloud Computing Good for the Environment? Featured

Is Cloud Computing Good for the Environment? "Hold the Green"

There are environmental costs associated with almost every type of human endeavor. This is certainly the case with cloud computing, although this use of technology can also provide benefits to the world’s environment. Let’s look at the environmental benefits, costs, and how the greening of the cloud can change the equation in the future.

Environmental Benefits of Cloud Computing 

Cloud computing offers society some concrete benefits when compared to employing individual, company-specific data centers. The most important benefits include: 

  • Better infrastructure - Many cloud data centers are located close to their power generating source, leading to less energy loss during transmission. The facilities are built to minimize energy consumption for activities like cooling and providing backup power. 
  • Higher utilization rate and efficiency - Cloud data centers are utilized at higher rates than traditional, on-premises environments. Less equipment sits idle as the provider benefits from using as much of their capacity as possible. Hardware and software refreshes are conducted frequently, leading to increased efficiency for both providers and customers.  
  • Dematerialization - Dematerialization refers to the replacement of high-carbon physical products with virtual equivalents. Cloud providers encourage the use of virtual services and systems, reducing waste generated from the disposal of physical items.  

Environmental Costs of the Cloud 

The environmental costs of cloud computing primarily concern the energy required to power its infrastructure. The economies of scale that make the cloud appealing to individual companies result in large data centers that house servers, storage devices, and communication equipment for customers. These facilities require a tremendous amount of electricity to operate. Environmental costs are based on the technology used to generate this electricity. Relying on fossil fuels contributes to global warming, damaging the environment. 

Concerns regarding the energy expended while cryptomining for Bitcoin and other flavors of cryptocurrency have recently been in the news. Mining pools consume incredible amounts of electricity that can be comparable to that used by states or small countries. Another environmental impact of cryptomining is the hardware that burns out from constant use and ends up in landfills.  

Most of the environmental costs of cloud computing would be reduced or eliminated by switching to renewable energy sources like wind and solar over fossil fuels. Some providers have committed to moving in the direction of green energy shortly. Society needs to hold them accountable and insist they follow through on their promises. 

Is the Future of Cloud Computing Green? 

Moving to a more sustainable cloud computing model requires providers to increase their use of renewable energy sources. The big three providers all have indicated their support for green computing, and have been successful to an extent. They all need to continue to support the move to fully power their data centers with renewables. 

Google has pledged to use only carbon-free energy by 2030. Microsoft claims that by 2030 they will be carbon negative, meaning they will remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit. Amazon is striving to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.  The long-term outlook for green cloud computing is an open question that will depend on providers following through on their promises. Individuals can also do a small part to limit the environmental impact of cloud computing. 

You are contributing to the power demands of your provider every time you send a friend a video or photo. Perhaps it’s time to show some restraint. They probably have enough videos of cute cats already taking up storage space.

 

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 Robert Agar

I am a freelance writer who graduated from Pace University in New York with a Computer Science degree in 1992. Over the course of a long IT career I have worked for a number of large service providers in a variety of roles revolving around data storage and protection. I currently reside in northeastern Pennsylvania where I write from my home office.

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