Sustainability benefits of cloud computing data centers

Cloud computing data centers use large amounts of electricity, but a main sustainability benefit is the cloud's large scale and ability to store more data.

Data centers are significant drivers of growth in electricity demand. Cloud computing data centers are large facilities that need an incredible amount of electricity to run and maintain, but there are worldwide efforts to move to more sustainable energy.

The progress to address climate change with energy sustainability is happening at a slower pace than expected, according to the COP28 UN Climate Change Conference held in November 2023. As a result, all nations will seek ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions further, with the goal to cut them down 43% by 2030 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Doing so will help protect the planet from environmental risks and impacts.

New regulations will target data centers to moderate energy consumption and curtail emissions, and data centers will have to find ways to increase their overall sustainability to comply. This begs the question: Is transitioning from physical data centers to cloud computing data centers a potential path to cultivate better energy efficiency and sustainability?

The environmental impact of cloud computing data centers today

People might assume cloud computing is more environmentally friendly than traditional computing since data is stored in "the cloud" and not locally on physical, on-premises servers. Cloud computing relies on virtualization techniques, like virtual servers and storage, to abstract compute resources from a physical system.

Although virtualized environments make better use of resources and provide them virtually across distances, they are still based on physical servers, just fewer of them. Cloud computing data centers require floorspace to store physical equipment. Both traditional and cloud computing data centers have physical servers that require temperature and humidity management.

Cloud computing data centers share many of the same environmental impacts as physical data centers, such as water consumption, land use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the primary concern for both cloud and physical data centers is their electricity use.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the total electricity consumption of data centers, globally, could reach more than 1,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2026. This would be a significant rise from the approximately 460 TWh of consumption in 2022. The IEA points to AI as one of the main drivers behind this potential growth.

This is cause for concern as the energy industry is the major source of today's global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, as of 2022, the United States' use of renewable energy, like wind and solar power, generates 21.5% of electricity. Meanwhile, more than 50% of electricity comes from fossil fuels, like natural gas and coal, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The energy sector must move away from fossil fuels. One way to transition into use of renewable resources across multiple industries is for cloud computing data centers to change their energy consumption method -- such as solar or wind use.

Is cloud computing greener than physical data centers?

It's difficult to compare a cloud computing data center to a traditional data center one-to-one because of their scale. Traditional data centers are often smaller and more distributed than cloud computing data centers. A small, well-optimized physical data center might be more energy efficient on a certain level, but it really comes down to economies of scale.

Multiple traditional data centers would be needed to support the same compute workload a single, large-scale cloud computing data center can support.

Cloud computing data centers' ability to spin up virtual instances of servers enables them to consolidate more workloads onto one shared infrastructure. As a result, cloud computing data centers can do more with a single physical server than a traditional data center. Cloud computing data centers create many virtual and cloud environments and partition them to keep client data separated on one server. This enables them to provision resources more efficiently and flexibly.

Multiple traditional data centers would be needed to support the same compute workload a single, large-scale cloud computing data center can support. From an energy standpoint, it is best to consolidate physical data centers into one primary cloud computing data center that could handle larger compute workloads.

With the demand for AI workloads on the rise, the amount of compute power data centers must support will scale to new heights. Energy consumption and resources of large-scale cloud computing data centers will be critical to meet sustainability goals. Traditional data centers, in comparison, will likely struggle to maintain the balance between output and emissions on smaller scales.

Potential power alternatives and more sustainable strategies

Both cloud computing and traditional data centers must seek out ways to be more sustainable because consolidating compute workloads is only part of the battle. If the maintenance and optimization of server equipment and power usage are not done well, the potential energy advantages will cancel out.

Here are a few strategies all data centers should consider implementing to become more sustainable:

  • Transition to renewable energy sources. There must be demand, though. Data centers can drive that demand by switching to solar, wind or hydropower where possible to move away from fossil fuel energy generation.
  • Invest in energy-efficient equipment.
  • Manage water usage sustainably. Data centers use a lot of water to cool IT equipment and control humidity levels. However, there are ways to reuse data center water and better conserve it.
  • Reuse heat. Many data centers funnel hot air their servers generate back into the atmosphere. Data centers can reuse that heat by connecting with district heating systems or local greenhouses, as a couple of examples.
  • Adopt the circular economy. E-waste is another data center environmental impact. To eliminate waste in nonrenewable materials, integrate circular economy practices into the data center product cycle.
  • Construct with sustainable materials. A new or expanding data center should be built with materials that have less-embodied carbon.

So, is cloud computing truly greener? At scale, potentially. It's clear that, in an increasingly globalized, digital-first, remote-based world, more efficient cloud computing at scale will play an important role in hitting sustainability targets in the short- and long-term.

Jacob Roundy is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in a variety of technology topics, including data centers and sustainability.

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