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Sustainability: How Green is Cloud Computing ?

A recent blog by Heather Clancy on ZDNet asked the question: Is cloud computing really greener or just passing the buck? This is a valuable question because it forces one to think more deeply about the impacts of their green activities. Green activities at any level, from cutting down on printer output or changing to energy efficient light bulbs to changing fleets to electronic vehicles or instituting work-from-home policies, have the potential to bring negative impacts as well as positive. Hopefully, however, the activity has an overall positive benefit.

On the cloud computing question, Heather wonders about the environmental costs of decommissioned servers as one moves from on-premise to cloud-based computing. This question is both difficult and easy to answer.

First, the question is difficult to answer because it implies a comparison between CO2 emissions saved (outsourcing server hosting leading to energy reduction) and environmental pollution (environmental impact of servers components such as hazardous metals that enter the waste stream). Most companies don’t attempt to conflate these two measures – they report on different categories including CO2, Water, and Waste reduction. An overall “green” figure would be meaningless because who’s to say incrementally adding to one is worse than another. A company’s goal should be to drive down a range of environmental measures – CO2 emissions, water consumption, waste generation. SAP’s approach, for both our internal programs and in terms of the solutions it offers customers, extends the definition of sustainability even more broadly to include sustainable strategy, operational risk management, sustainable consumption, resource productivity, sustainable workforce. CO2, Water and Waste are but components within a larger strategy. This holistic approach avoids the trap that Heather describes.

Second, decommissioning an old server is not something that only occurs when considering the move to a cloud-based solution. So the issue of putting unused equipment into the waste stream will occur whether or not you decide to move to the cloud. The technical lifespan of a server is probably 8-10 years, at least for the CPU component of the server (although fans, power supply, hard drive, etc. may fail several times during that period). The utility lifespan, the duration of the technology before the benefits of newer servers becomes a compelling business consideration, may be 3-4 years. Since Microsoft’s research clearly indicates a strong CO2 reduction (per employee) when moving to a cloud-based solution, the timing of the move could coincide with the lifespan of your servers. At a point where a number of servers are approaching the end of their life-spans, it might be time to consider a move to the cloud.

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  • Very interesting article.

    As you already mention: decommission of old servers will happen anyway. Hopefully in a proper way to get back some raw material and keep our planet clean.

    The cloud approach itself helps to optimize the utilization and hopefully to get rid of the servers which are doing nothing or idling the most time. Additionally I assume that cloud providers will run their data centers in a very efficient way.

    Hence in my opinion the overall balance will be positive.