Sustainability in the cloud
As Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, I spend much of my time considering the intersection between technology and society and the associated environmental impacts.
Datacenters are always a hot topic, primarily for the amount of energy they consumeand
; the discussion around data centers and sustainability has tended to focus on how to reduce the amount of energy that these large facilities use. It’s critical that both Microsoft and the industry continue to pursue efficiency gains in this area, but too little attention has been paid to the potential for data centers and the services they run to deliver sustainability gains for people and businesses around the world.
While there are no official criteria for what counts as a data center, broadly speaking, they are typically large buildings that hold hundreds if not thousands of servers. At Microsoft, our data centers have always supported our own products and services, but increasingly, the computing infrastructure in our data centers is being offered to our business customers to support computing needs that they once would have hosted on site. There are a variety of cloud computing providers we are trying to integrate with. Because of their size, data centers that support these cloud services tend to have much higher operational efficiency and economies of scale, creating potential carbon savings for Microsoft customers.
We recently commissioned the global management consulting firm Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy to analyze the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for cloud-hosted deployments of three popular Microsoft applications for email, content sharing and customer relationship management versus those same applications run on site in an organization’s IT infrastructure.
The study found that across the board, organizations could save energy and carbon by switching to the cloud and the smaller the organization, the larger the benefit. When small organizations (up to 100 users) move to the cloud, the study predicted an effective carbon footprint reduction of up to 90 percent over using local servers. For large corporations, the predicted savings were typically 30 percent or more.
Frankly, the results weren’t too surprising. Think of cloud computing as being like mass transit. The data center is essentially getting computing applications to carpool or take the bus instead of sitting in their own individual servers. This allows these customers the opportunity to use external information technology resources and potentially shut down their existing IT operations, saving energy and money. Unlike transportation, however, there is no tradeoff in flexibility or independence when a company moves its email or other services from on premise to cloud-hosted.
As scientists work to tackle environmental issues such as climate change and resource management, they too are discovering how the cloud can help accelerate and solve research challenges. Our Microsoft Research division is working with researchers at University California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to address the computing needs in managing Northern California’s Russian River Valley watershed.
For this project, researchers use Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud-computing platform to compute massive amounts of data in scalable way. The cloud-based system allows researchers to focus on scientific analysis and perform these tasks faster, to aggregate and analyze massive amounts of data in new ways, and provides greater access to and contribution of data from a larger audience than previously possible.
As the complexity of problems we must deal with become more urgent (as evidenced by increasing water scarcity around the world, reduced food reserves, increased ocean acidity), the realization that massive amounts of data need to be analyzed and updated will derive increasing value from cloud computing.
With increasing civic engagement on environmental issues comes a growing need and desire for timely information about the environment in which we live, and governments and non-governmental organizations are beginning to use to technology to help respond to this demand. For instance, the European Environmental Agency has worked with Microsoft to create a way to inform citizens about environmental health.
Eye on Earth platform, based on the Windows Azure cloud operating system, provides the European Union’s 500 million citizens the opportunity to view real-time data – updated every 2 hours – on water or air quality from the agency’s 32 member countries using high-definition Bing maps. Windows Azure offered the European Environmental Agency not only straightforward business benefits such as greater agility and scalability, but it also helped broaden awareness of the impacts of environmental change and allowed people in Europe to make better-informed choices about their environment.
We’ve seen time and time again the potential for IT to drive big changes in the world. As these examples illustrate, we believe the new paradigm of cloud computing will play a critical role supporting the growing demands of businesses, governments and the scientific community to address a variety of complex challenges.
As technological progress continues to accelerate, we will likely find that we’ve only scratched the surface on the possibilities for computing to positively impact environmental sustainability. With the ability to remotely access computing power, or computing in the cloud, a world of possibility is opened to those that are addressing these challenges.
Rob Bernard is the chief environmental strategist for Microsoft and is responsible for defining and implementing the global strategy for the company's environmental efforts.
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