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The information technology industry hasn’t always had a great reputation when it comes to sustainability. Toxins in computers and phones caused consternation at Greenpeace and elsewhere for many years and recycling took some time to mature. Things are much better these days and we can point to successes such as the Energy Star badge program to back up our contention that IT has stepped up to play its part in protecting this fragile planet. But with cloud computing, the opportunity is there to take chunks out of the tech-related carbon footprint.

As a preface to that argument, I should add that IT needn’t be too ashamed of its work to date. Digitisation is a force for good. By reducing physical processes to ones and zeros we are taking a huge amount of weight off carbon-hungry activities in logistics, manufacturing, and elsewhere. Think of publishing, for example. Selling a book consumes trees, chemicals, and ink and requires transportation to warehouses and onwards to shops or consumers. And after all that, it may well end being pulped. A digital equivalent leaves far less of a trail, however.

You could say the same of many other areas too. Think of game and movie streaming, videoconferencing rather than travelling, digital banking compared to cash. Even in some of the trickiest areas of commerce, technology can help: if people can reliably measure themselves and try on clothes virtually then we immediately take swathes out of the horribly lossy apparel sector where returns, overconsumption, and landfill are hurting retailers and, ultimately, our world. And we’re only scratching the surface of what technology can do for transport and smart cities.

Thinking about cloud specifically we can see many ways in which it is not just becoming the default deployment model for convenience, agility, value, and scalability but also the go-to model for the environment. Here, the numbers are far more than incremental gains. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory stated way back in 2013 that in the (albeit unlikely) case of US workers immediately shifting their communications, collaboration, CRM, and productivity tools to the cloud, this single collective act would save enough electricity annually to fuel Los Angeles for a year. Depending on the modernity of the data center being replaced, the cloud could save up to 95 percent of energy associated with the software.

It’s certainly the case that datacentres account for at least one to two percent of global energy consumption and the forecasts suggest that this will multiply in the near future to perhaps eight percent by 2030 and 14 percent by 2040. That sort of growth would see IT surpassing even aviation (in the post-pandemic future when travel returns), one of the current bogeymen of energy consumption.

That’s because the cloud really fulfills a lot of the thinking about responsible ways to live and work. Cloud platforms are infinitely shareable, elastic, and fit for repurposing. Just as a hotel can accommodate a changing roster of guests and create economies of scale on utilities and facilities, a cloud service provider plays host to the masses.

Cloud datacentres aren’t just scaled-up versions of traditional datacentres. They benefit from the latest approaches to HVAC (say ‘aitch-vac’), the facilities management techies’ term for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. HVAC was a bit of a dirty secret for datacentres because for decades it could be as expensive to cool datacentres as it was to serve up Mips. And with a hyper-scaler datacentre you’re highly likely to reap the benefits of being close to new energy sources too.

These enormous facilities tend to be different in another way. The hyper-scalers have the vast budgets to purchase the best equipment and modern servers and other hardware tend to be like refrigerators at home. That is, the more often you replace them the smaller the relative power envelope they need. Stripped of unnecessary bells and whistles such as video clips, they are also far skinnier and purpose-focused than generic servers. The Open Compute Project, a collaborative project to reimagine hardware design, suggests that 3.75 corporate datacentre servers could be replaced by just one server at a hyper-scaler facility.

There are other advantages too. CSPs have access to talented people and can help hard-pressed in-house IT operations stay on the right side of the changing panoply of rules and regulations that apply to the green agenda. The inexorable trend is away from companies running their own data centres and few progressive companies will want to spend valuable resources understanding the latest and greatest waste management directives or the lacunae of motherboard design impacts on sustainability.

Just as the cloud takes away a lot of the complexities and inefficiencies of datacentre management, it can also obviate a lot of the heavy lifting that it takes to move towards becoming a net-zero business. That is increasingly key to the brand, hiring, and more: the cloud provides a way to effectively outsource that.

In this article, I’ve deliberately focused on the hyper-scalers as they consume more and more of the IT deployment pie but smaller clouds will play their part too and it seems a slam-dunk certainty that the foreseeable future is hybrid. But the broad cloud computing movement and hyper-scale movement especially, can justifiably claim that sustainability should be added to its roster of benefits.

And the issue of technology-related sustainability is still growing.

As Cushing Anderson, programme vice president at IDC, recently said, “The idea of ‘green IT’ has been around now for years, but the direct impact of hyperscale computing can have on CO2 emissions is getting increased notice from customers, regulators, and investors and it’s starting to factor into buying decisions.”

Increasingly ‘smart’ data centres will lead to savings of over a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over the next four years, IDC said. When the numbers are so large and the stakes are so high, CIOs and other executives will do well to take notice.

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