Cloud business may be more efficient but is it greener?

Smokestack "Moving to the cloud isn't necessarily greener," warns the Carbon Trust's Andie Stephens

Cloud-based computing can help businesses reduce their operating costs and carbon footprints, providers claim.

Technology of Business

And on the face of it, outsourcing IT services and moving from physical to virtual operations seems to make sense.

It reduces the need for energy-hungry, bricks-and-mortar offices, while online collaborative software improves efficiency.

But companies cannot assume they are operating more sustainably simply by moving to the cloud, some experts warn, because not all clouds are equally as clean.

Game theory

Markus Steinkamp, head of business intelligence for Berlin-based mobile games company Wooga, doesn't pretend sustainability issues were paramount in his company's decision to use cloud services.

"We wanted to outsource as much stuff as possible to leave our teams free to focus on games development rather than servers, " he says.

"The primary motivation was to lower costs; sustainability was a nice by-product."

Wooga, whose free games are played by about eight to 10 million people a day, uses Amazon Web Services to handle its games and Exasol as its main database provider.

"The cloud gives us the flexibility to respond to fluctuating market demand and only pay for the server capacity we need," says Mr Steinkamp.

Screengrab of Kingsbridge game Mobile games company Wooga.com relies on cloud services to run its operations as efficiently as possible

"Exasol's expertise in data compression gives better performance and reduces the number of servers we need, thus reducing energy consumption and cost," he adds.

Virtual computing, real savings

The logic of moving to the cloud is certainly compelling when you look at the numbers.

US cloud services provider Salesforce.com says that in 2012 its customers saved 587,628 tonnes of CO2 emissions by using cloud rather than on-site software.

Start Quote

We're shifting to a world where instead of moving Adams around, we're moving atoms”

End Quote Peter Coffee Salesforce.com

This is equivalent to removing 122,000 cars from the road, it suggests.

"By moving to the cloud the carbon footprint reduction is about 95%," Peter Coffee, the company's vice-president of strategic research, told the BBC.

"Before, if you were preparing a document and collaborating with two or three colleagues, you'd each be using PCs, software and intermediate servers, resulting in thousands and thousands of watts of electricity being used.

"With the cloud model there's only one document in one place being accessed remotely. This represents a dramatic reduction in energy consumption."

Online collaboration also reduces the need for travel, a major contributor of global CO2 emissions, Mr Coffee argues.

"We're shifting to a world where instead of moving Adams around, we're moving atoms," he says.

Redundancy

By outsourcing hardware and software to the cloud, companies strip out redundancy, or unused capacity, from their IT systems, argues Kathrin Winkler, chief sustainability officer at global big data and cloud computing firm EMC.

Rainbow over windfarm in Kansas Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook aim to have all their data centres powered by renewable energy

"Most company servers are only being used at about 15% of their capacity," she says. "Some never get used at all."

Due to advances in server and database technology "what used to take 40 servers can now be done by one," she says.

Start Quote

Just moving to the cloud doesn't mean you're greener - a lot depends how efficiently the data centre is run and how its electricity is produced”

End Quote Duncan Ross Teradata

By making the most of dynamically-managed, distributed computing that allows applications to be accessed from a range of different data centres simultaneously, companies can enjoy capacity on tap, argues Ms Winkler.

"As a result we've seen carbon savings of 10% to 40% through moving to the private or public cloud," she says.

Such improvements in efficiency mean Salesforce.com can service 140,000 businesses around the world with just 12,000 servers located in a handful of data centres, says Mr Coffee.

Guy Lipscombe, Exasol's UK and Ireland managing director, says: "The main ecological advantage of cloud computing is that resources are shared - it's similar to the fact that a train journey with 400 passengers is more efficient than those 400 passengers driving a single-occupant car."

Rising energy demand

But some fear that the explosion in the volume of digital data, caused largely by the growing number of networked mobile devices, internet transactions and sensor-equipped devices, is causing a proliferation of energy-hungry data centres.

"Energy demand in IT services will increase because of this growth in digital data," admits EMC's Ms Winkler.

This sounds alarming in the face of mounting evidence of a causal link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change.

Chinese policeman in smog-filled city Do you know if your cloud provider's data centre is powered by a polluting coal-fired power station?

And man-made greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise - 2.2% a year on average from 2000 to 2010, compared with 1.3% a year from 1970 to 2000, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

And industry contributes more than a quarter of global energy end use, the IPCC says.

This is putting pressure on internet companies to be more transparent about their carbon footprints and more innovative in reducing energy consumption.

But not all are succeeding.

Green data

Companies such as Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, and Salesforce.com, are all aiming to have their data centres powered by 100% renewable energy.

Amazon Web Services, on the other hand, is the "among the dirtiest and least transparent companies in the sector", environmental lobby group Greenpeace concludes in its April 2014 report, Clicking Clean.

"When you do stuff in the cloud, you don't necessarily know where the data centre is located or how it is powered - you can't guarantee the environmental credentials of the service provider," warns Duncan Ross, director of data science at Teradata, a data storage and analysis company.

Aerial shot of Green Mountain data centre The Green Mountain data centre in Norway claims to be "the greenest in the world"

Andie Stephens, senior consultant the Carbon Trust, a business advisory body, agrees saying: "Just moving to the cloud doesn't mean you're greener - a lot depends how efficiently the data centre is run and how its electricity is produced.

"The geographic location of a data centre makes a 20% difference to how much energy it uses," he says. "About 60% of a data centre's energy use is spent on cooling.

An exemplar in the field is the award-winning Green Mountain data centre in Norway, which claims to be the greenest in the world.

Its energy comes from renewable hydro-electric power located nearby and the centre is sited underground in a former Nato ammunition store, thereby reducing cooling costs.

So if you want your business to operate more sustainably, you also need to know how clean is your cloud.

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Business Live

  1.  
    Thomas Cook Via Twitter

    Dominic Walsh of The Times tweets: Question is whether, as with Club Med, Fosun has longer-term aim to use minority stake in Thomas Cook as basis for eventual full bid @walshdominic

     
  2.  
    08:47: Market update

    The FTSE 100 Index is 8 points lower at 6,953. Shares in Weir Group are the biggest riser this morning on speculation that the engineering firm may be a bid target following a recent slump in its share price.

     
  3.  
    08:31: Thomas Cook
    Thomas Cook

    Fosun, a Chinese investment firm, has bought a 5% stake in Thomas Cook for £91.9m and plans to increase its holding further. The move follows its purchase of French resort operator Club Med last month. Shares in Thomas Cook have soared 16% higher to 140p.

     
  4.  
    08:17: RBS shares

    Just worth point out that RBS shares are trading at 376.9p and the government needs to sell its stake at an average of 455p per share just to break even on the money it pumped into the bank in 2008 and 2009. Also worth mentioning: Mr Osborne may not be Chancellor after May.

     
  5.  
    08:03: RBS shares
    RBS

    George Osborne has told the Financial Times he made a mistake in not radically restructuring taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland soon after he came to office in 2010. But the chancellor says he would like to proceed "as quickly as we can to get rid of it" after the general election.

     
  6.  
    07:50: AGA profits

    AGA says operating profit stood at £9.6m, but it booked £4.1m in pensions charges, £3.3m in fair value costs relating to its stake in Fired Earth - its tiles business - leaving it with £2.2m. But that's before £1.5m in net interest charges on its pensions deficit, which doubled in the year from £35m to £72m. That brought pre-tax profits down to just £700,000, and left AGA in no position to pay a dividend. But the company does expect market conditions to improve this year.

     
  7.  
    07:39: Vodafone
    The Hoff

    Vodafone has announced a plan to introduce a mandatory minimum maternity policy in all 30 countries in which it operates. By the end of 2015, all female employees will be offered at least 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave, as well as full pay for a 30-hour week for the first six months after they return to work. David Hasselhoff, however, will not be eligible.

     
  8.  
    07:27: AGA profits
    AGA Rangemaster

    AGA Rangemaster has reported a slight fall in an annual pre-tax profit to £700,000, compared with £1.1m a year earlier. It has also announced it will not be paying a dividend to shareholders.

     
  9.  
    DFS shares Via Twitter

    Retail analyst Nick Bubb tweets: The Chairman of DFS trumpets that it stands for "Dedication, Family and Success". Or Dull Furniture Sale? ;-) @NickBubb1

     
  10.  
    07:15: DFS shares
    DFS

    Buy one, get one half price! Furniture retailer DFS has priced shares at 255p - at the lower end of expectations. The stock starts trading at 0800 today and means the company will be valued at close to £550m.

     
  11.  
    07:02: Eurozone outlook BBC Radio 4

    One thing that may help the eurozone economy is a small but significant accomplishment by the ECB that appears to have gone largely unnoticed. That was last Autumn's asset quality review of the banks, by the ECB which "gave pretty much everybody a clean bill of help", says Mr Cameron Watt. "And that's allowing banks to sell assets off their balance sheets."

     
  12.  
    Greek economy Via Twitter Adam Parsons Business Correspondent

    Former Greek shipping minister @MVarvitsiotis tells #WUTM "we'll do whatever it takes...to stay in Eurozone...leaving would be a disaster" @AdamParsons1

     
  13.  
    06:47: Eurozone outlook BBC Radio 4
    Draghi

    Mr Cameron Watt tells Today: "There is a following wind which is the lower oil price and the material decline in the currency [euro] against the dollar". He says those factors should help boost the eurozone economy, although he he sceptical that it will do as well as ECB president Mario Draghi (pictured) suggested at his press conference on Thursday.

     
  14.  
    06:35: ECB bond buying BBC Radio 4
    The EURO logo is pictured in front of the former headquarter of the European Central Bank

    We're talking quantitative easing (QE) on the Today programme and why it pushes up stock markets. And Ewan Cameron Watt, global chief investment strategist at BlackRock, explains in the most clear terms. It is all about portfolio substitution, of course. "If I buy a whole lot of bonds and give you cash, you have now have to invest that cash," he says. "You don't want to buy bonds because of [current] negative yields, so it forces you to buy riskier assets, which inflates the prices of things like equities." Simples.

     
  15.  
    06:25: Alpacas! Radio 5 live
    Alpacas

    Let's face it - alpacas are a bit weird. But farming the cuddly critters appears to appeal to some who want to escape the rat race, alpaca farmer Mary-Jo Smith tells Wake Up to Money. She says alpaca wool is strong, luxurious and "just amazing to wear". The British Alpaca Society holds its annual show in Telford this weekend.

     
  16.  
    06:15: Insurers v banks Radio 5 live

    Aviva shares ended 7% higher yesterday and Ewen Cameron Watt, chief investment strategist at BlackRock, tells Wake Up to Money it is no surprise that insurers are doing better than banks. He says operating conditions for banks are getting tougher, but some insurers are opting to join forces.

     
  17.  
    06:05: Rangers FC
    A general view of the Ibrox Stadium, in Glasgow,

    It's a big day for Rangers FC as the club holds an emergency meeting where Dave King hopes to oust the board. However, there are question marks over King - who wants to become chairman - because of his convictions in South Africa for tax offences.

     
  18.  
    06:03: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Happy Friday everyone. Don't forget you can get in touch by email at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or via twitter @bbcbusiness.

     
  19.  
    06:00: It's Friday Chris Johnston Business Reporter

    Good morning and welcome to the last day of the working week. US unemployment figures are set to dominate the day and are out at 13:30. We'll bring you the reaction to those numbers and all the day's other business news as well.

     

Features

  • Cartoon of women chatting on the metroChat wagon

    The interesting things you hear in a women-only carriage


  • Replica of a cargo boxSpecial delivery

    The man who posted himself to the other side of the world


  • Woman wearing a niqab in Raqqa (31 March 2014)'Run for your life'

    How IS fighter's tip-off led to narrow escape for Syrian woman


  • Target practice for Lithuanian troopsBaltic shiver

    Europe editor Katya Adler on the alarm at Russian muscle-flexing


From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • A cyborg cockroachClick Watch

    The cyborg cockroach – why has a computer been attached to this insect’s nervous system?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.