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Cloud computing: the environmental pros and cons

By Jordan Kasteler, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Oct. 14, 2016 at 11:44 a.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY— Most people have an idea of what “cloud computing” is. In a nutshell, it refers to accessing documents, information and applications online rather than storing things on hard drives. Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, and Salesforce.com are all examples.

Although countless businesses worldwide have been accessing their data on the cloud for several years, some are still hesitant.

A few reasons for resisting the move to cloud computing include documents potentially becoming unavailable when they are needed, the possibility of being hacked and service fees.

While there are plenty of best practices that can reduce these fears, the cloud’s negative environmental effects can be trickier to fix.

Environmental cons of using the cloud:

Excessive electricity use

Last year, NPR reported on a huge data farm near Salt Lake City that was built by the National Security Agency.

“NSA does provide some measure of the computing power at its new data farm in Utah," according to NPR. "It requires 65 megawatts of power, enough for 65,000 homes.”

If you think that sounds like a lot of electricity, consider the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of data centers supporting the cloud worldwide.

Fossil fuels

Much of the electricity needed to maintain the cloud comes from fossil fuels and coal.

According to a report from Greenpeace, IT-related emissions— such as those created by cloud computing— add up to about 2 percent of global emissions, on par with emissions from the global aviation sector.

The fact that the cloud’s data centers put out roughly the same amount of emissions as all the world’s airlines is pretty staggering.

Water use

Cloud computing involves millions of servers around the world, all of which produce significant amounts of heat. The robust cooling systems used to mitigate this heat require water. How much water?

Amazon has determined that a data center using 15 megawatts of power needs up to 360,000 gallons of water every day for cooling. And to manage the heat generated in the NSA’s facility near Salt Lake City, 1.5 million gallons of water are used per day.

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Environmental pros of using the cloud

Now that I’ve touched on some serious negatives of cloud computing, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of the cloud environment. Many people feel that the following advantages outweigh the cloud’s environmental disadvantages.

Reduced server-related greenhouse gases

As I’ve mentioned, servers and computer equipment contribute to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It has been shown that if more companies around the world would transfer data to the cloud rather than keeping servers in their facilities, greenhouse gases would decrease.

One report determined that significant environmental benefits would happen if 80 percent of companies would shut down their servers and adopt cloud-based applications. Such cloud adoption would reduce greenhouse gases by at least 4.5 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This reduction is equivalent to 1.7 million cars being taken off the road. It would also create an energy savings of $2.2 billion.

Further, according to Microsoft, their cloud solutions can reduce energy use and carbon emissions by more than 30 percent when compared to their corresponding Microsoft business applications installed on premise. Microsoft also confirmed that the benefits would be even more impressive for small deployments. Energy use and emissions can be reduced by more than 90 percent with a shared cloud service.

Reduction in travel-related greenhouse gases

Companies that utilize the cloud can allow employees to work remotely by sharing documents and data virtually. “Virtual” working arrangements can significantly reduce fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

On a global level, international businesses no longer need to require people to travel abroad. This travel reduction dramatically reduces a company’s carbon footprint.

Reduced paper waste

This benefit is often overlooked, but it is significant to the environment. Cloud computing enables a business to cut back on its paper waste. Printing and paper needs are significantly reduced when countless documents are shared and collaborated over the cloud. Education tech companies are shifting traditional education from pencil and paper to the cloud.

Reduced machinery (better server utilization)

Sharing documents over the cloud is environmentally preferable to using local hardware storage. Local hardware is dedicated to only one use, and a business’ server utilization is typically very low (around 10 percent.) More servers are therefore needed worldwide to achieve the same amount of work.

The cloud, however, shares resources and increases server utilization to around 70 percent. Overall, this improved server utilization cuts down on the number of machines needed to store documents and information.

Reduced energy costs for businesses

Cloud computing can also benefit a business financially. Because the cloud helps reduce the amount of hardware at a business’ facility, a company can decrease its energy costs. And since the energy-cost savings can be used for other profit generating projects, utilizing the cloud can also boost a business’ bottom-line performance.

Cloud computing is here to stay, and companies such as Microsoft are increasingly doing more to address the environmental issues involved.

Jordan Kasteler is a freelance marketing consultant, entrepreneur, author and speaker. He has a history of co-founding and serving in-house, agencies, and startups in the digital marketing industry.

Jordan Kasteler

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