Does cloud computing really reduce energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions? This has been a subject of debate for some time. The large data centres used for cloud computing are usually more energy efficient than in-house data centres, but there are transmission costs and other overheads.
Add to that the difficulty of proper metrics for cloud computing and there are many difficulties in comparing its energy consumption with older styles of computing. Now a study sponsored by GeSI (Global e-Sustainability Initiative – the people who brought you the Smart 2020 and Smarter 2020 reports) and Microsoft have put some firm numbers on the energy savings from cloud computing.
They are substantial. The study shows that increased use of cloud computing services has the potential to save over US$2.2 billion (€1.65 billion) a year. The savings come from a reduction in energy consumption and reduced global environmental damage. The study finds cloud computing is 95% more efficient – just 1 tonne of greenhouse gas (GHG) created by cloud leads to 20 tonnes abated from customers.
The study is called ‘The Enabling Technologies of a Low-Carbon Economy- a Focus on Cloud Computing’ examines both the energy savings and GHG abatement potential of cloud computing in 11 countries – Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.
Download it here
It was conducted by a research team from Harvard University, Imperial College and Reading University. The study says that 11.2 TWh less energy will be consumed annually if 80% of public and private organisations in the countries studied opt to provide cloud-based email, customer relationship management (CRM) and groupware solutions to their staff, beyond current levels of adoption.
This translates to75% of the energy consumed by the Capital Region of Brussels or 25% of the energy consumed by London. It is equivalent to abating 4.5 mega tonnes of CO2 emissions annually or taking more than 1.7 million cars off the road, with 60% of these potential savings from small or micro-sized firms.
Dr Peter Thomond, who led the study, explains: “The findings show, contrary to the perception of power hungry data centres, that the energy efficiency of cloud infrastructure and its embedded carbon outperform on-site services by an order of magnitude. And that is only with these three applications – there are hundreds more.”
But the study says there are many hurdles to the broad adoption of cloud-based services. National policy-making creates uncertainty, even in positive policy documents such as China’s 12th Five Year Plan of Social and Economic Development and Britain’s Carbon Reduction Commitment, which provide a strong public pledge to reduce GHG emissions.
“Few government policies genuinely embrace the enabling potential of the ICT sector treat it more as part of the problem and less part of the solution, and government intent and targets are often neither clear nor justified,” says Dr Thomond. “Governments often fail to embrace the full range of policy instruments at their disposal, in particular, there is an under-utilisation of government leading by example.
“It would help market adoption if more governments walked their talk when providing their services, or considering service procurement. This said the ultimate responsibility for the spread of enabling technologies, such as cloud, naturally lies with vendors, and they too need to act fast to overcome barriers to adoption.
“We need stronger economic cases for cloud, more credible, impartial evidence of how specific services enable GHG abatement, less one-size-fits all marketing approaches and more acknowledgment that the shift to cloud creates behaviour change challenges, too.”
Luis Neves, GeSI Chairman, said: “Cloud-based email, CRM and groupware are only the tip of the iceberg. In 2012, GeSI published the SMARTer2020 study that found that large-scale, systems-enabled broadband and information and communication technologies could deliver a 16.5% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions and save up to US$1.9 trillion in savings by 2020.
“GeSI has taken a strong commitment to demonstrate the enabling potential of cloud computing in how it can tackle the difficult issue of climate change and boost economies”, said Neves. “This GeSI-supported study on the carbon abatement potential of cloud computing offers the first academically rigorous and industrially relevant study of its kind”.