Is the cloud green?

Green IT, energy consumption and ecological footprint are old chestnuts that regularly make the headline when we talk about the cloud and internet technologies. The growing dependency of the world on digital technologies increases its electrical and thus energy dependency. In addition, the increase in the speed of communication also increases the power consumption. A 4G smartphone can only work for a few hours at the best, where a GSM from the 90s could stay on for a whole day and offer several hours of communication.

So, is the cloud horrible when we talk about energy consumption? Microsoft has just released the results of its data centers’ energy footprint. In this report, we learn that moving 20% of on-premises computing power to the cloud is equivalent to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from a city like Washington or Turin! A cloud data center is between 79% to 93% more efficient than an on-premises data center.

Energy and cloud, a few facts

Here are some proven facts to understand the perimeter of the cloud’s energy consumption.

  1. According to Greenpeace, data centers consume 2% of the world’s energy.
  2. The energy efficiency of data centers (the Power use Effectiveness) continues to decrease to reach now the 1.1. This means that it takes 0.1 kilowatts to produce 1 kilowatt of computer-useful energy.
  3. According to the World Bank, the cost of electricity in Africa is on average double that of international standards, because of the dominant share of the oil, the very low use of hydraulic capacities and the presence of diesel generators.
  4. The major players are engaged in the use of renewable energies, all having a plan to reach 100% renewable by 2020.
  5. According to a study by Accenture and WSP Energy, a company decreases its carbon footprint by 30%, on average, by moving local IT to cloud services and up to 90% in the case of SMEs.
  6. Tolerable temperature and humidity inside the servers have increased over the years to reduce air conditioning needs.

Reading the Microsoft report provides a better understanding of the reality of the cloud’s energy consumption.

Energy and operations

However, electrical costs can be very high. Cloud is an alternative that can become very economical from a simple “electrical” point of view. Consider a small data center, consisting of a dozen servers and a few terabytes of storage. In addition to the need for inverters and possibly as generators, it will consume about nine thousand kilowatt/hour (one hundred watts/hour and per machine that is allowed to operate twenty-four hours a day), or just over two thousand dollars electricity, to which it is necessary to add just as much for light and air conditioning. The PUE of a local data center is indeed estimated at 2!

As seen in the previous calculation, in three or four years, we will spend more electricity to run our datacenter than the initial investment in servers. And this is only a low estimate because if, as in Nigeria for example, this data center is exclusively powered by a diesel generator, we will be able to multiply these costs by two or even three.

Let’s stop for a moment on these electrical considerations. From a purely economic and ecological point of view, maintaining a local data center has no logic. However, the electrical and usage costs of the premises are part of the overhead that accounting rarely rebills internally. Thus, the IT department, usually responsible for the operation of the data center, does not see these costs appearing in its budget. So this is not a topic of discussion.

Energy standards

The famous total cost of ownership, compliance with ISO 14001 and environmental pressures from the public authorities are serious to be considered. It is still necessary to discuss it beyond the walls of the IT department: the financial and legal departments are to be involved.

At the risk of displeasing IT managers, the electrical, environmental and regulatory footprint of a local data center must be considered and quantified. This makes it possible to determine objectively whether the local maintenance of the data center makes sense. The avowed purpose is not to remove power from the IT department, but to give it control over its destiny.

So, is the cloud green? If the controversy is going to continue to fuel the blogosphere and the debates between pro and anti, one can only see a background trend towards renewable, ecological design and the considering the ecological footprint. The awareness of the electricity consumption of the cloud and the data centers, in general, has an influence on technologies. From the 48-volt DC power supply to the server design to minimize consumption and promote recycling, the use of the air circulation to cool the machines to the use of the heat released to heat public buildings, from the generalization of virtualization to adherence to norms and standards, cloud players accelerate the movement to make their data center as green as possible.


Certainly, we can find that this is not going fast enough. The use of coal or oil to power the data centers is still prevalent. While transparency is not always complete, it must be noted that all major players are working to reduce their carbon footprint and make their data centers totally “renewable”. Here are a few:

You can find other examples online. The important point to note here is that the movement is there and that nothing really seems to be able to stop it. So, if you are concerned about environmental issues or if you want to preempt green legislation, the cloud is a way to green your IT infrastructure. Look at the ISO 14001 standard and set up a steering committee to join.

You can read more in my book, Private, Hybrid, and Public Clouds.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

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