Just how sustainable are data centres and Cloud Services?

More and more data is being stored and used in the Cloud and many companies are moving the majority (if not all) of their IT infrastructure into the Cloud.

5 minutes 5 minutes
Table of Contents
Cloud services offer greater flexibility for organisations, which is attractive in times of uncertainty. There is every indication this is likely to increase, with the Google Cloud Brand Pulse Survey, Q4 2022 showing that 41.4% of global tech and business leaders plan to increase their investment in cloud-based services and products due to the current economic climate.

As Cloud infrastructure reduces the need for private on-premise servers, localised storage devices, and portable memory devices, it is logical to perceive it as relatively ‘Green’. However, as the need for data centres grows, so too do the resources (energy, chips and electronics, cooling systems, fire prevention systems etc) required to manufacture, build, and run these facilities.

So, is Cloud Computing sustainable, is a ‘Green Data Centre' even possible, and how can Cloud improve sustainability? Just how sustainable are the data centres required to continue delivering data storage and Cloud services? These are complicated but fascinating and important questions to ask.

Comparing Cloud Computing data centres and on-premise servers

Generally speaking, individual companies struggle to organise on-premise servers as energy efficiently as operators of modern large Cloud data centres. For instance, companies often plan their internal servers to be larger than normally required which means they are usually never fully utilised, but nonetheless consume as much energy as if they were. This is because the energy demand of a server depends on its operation, not its degree of utilisation.
On the other hand, data centres use Virtualisation of physical IT resources (such as hardware, software, storage, and network technologies) which makes it possible to distribute these resources flexibly and according to demand from different customers, to optimise their utilisation. In addition, many cloud providers overbook the virtualised resources, as users do not fully claim all booked resources at the same time. This approach ensures that cloud capacities are more efficiently utilised.
There are greater working efficiencies too. The use of shared documents and files in the Cloud (through Microsoft Teams for example) means fewer redundant versions of files are saved on local drives, and therefore less data and the associated resources is required overall.

Resource consumption of data centres 

Figures from The Shift Project in France suggest that by 2025, 8% of global CO2 production will come from the digital economy. 
However efficient they are, it is important to remember that data centres still require large amounts of both electricity and water to operate and produce CO2 as a result.
Data centres are estimated to be responsible for up to 3% of global electricity consumption today and are projected to touch 4% by 2030. The average hyperscale data centre facility (Hyperscale data centres are massive facilities built by companies with vast data processing and storage needs) consumes 20-50MW annually – theoretically enough electricity to power up to 37,000 homes.
Servers also generate tremendous amounts of waste heat making water consumption for cooling another significant resource requirement. Hyperscale data centres are estimated to use 1.7m litres of water a day (622m litres a year). This is contrasted against UN predictions that by 2025 50% of the world’s population is projected to live in water-stressed areas. Whilst climate change and human consumption of water are key reasons for this, data centre usage creates another pressure on reserves.  
Because of the essential nature of the data stored in a data centre, everything must have a backup with full redundancy should the primary servers fail. This means backup servers, backup power supplies, and backup cooling systems. Effectively, twice the capacity is required at all times to ensure failover. 
With more and more businesses demanding cloud services, the number and size of data centres will continue to grow. The environmental footprint of data centres to maintain these now essential services is considerable. It is therefore vital that companies think about their environmental impact and the digital solutions and devices they use during their digital transformation.
Despite this, there are figures that prove that the switch from on-premise servers to the cloud still results in significant energy savings and CO2 reductions. Cloud computing is capable of improving energy efficiency by 93%, and producing 98% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than on premises IT infrastructure, according to the Microsoft-WSP collaborative study.

Ensuring your Cloud services are more sustainable - three important considerations 

It is important to realise that not all data centres are the same when it comes to sustainability. So, what can you look for to ensure your Cloud services are as sustainable as possible? You need to choose a provider and services whose data centre sustainability credentials are as efficient on resources as possible, and key things to look for include:

  1. An indication of internationally recognised certifications such as ISO 14001 or LEED. The international environmental management standard ISO 14001 defines globally recognised requirements for an environmental management system. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a classification system for green building.

  2. If they are available, look at the CO2, water consumption, and waste figures and what the provider is doing to reduce these amounts in the future.

  3. Look at whether the company uses renewable energy powered data centre – naturally 100% renewable energy is the ideal, but others may use a high percentage too.

Konica Minolta and sustainability in the cloud 

Konica Minolta is committed to providing Cloud services that are as sustainable as possible and uses various data centre providers for its services to target this goal. As an accredited Microsoft Cloud Solution Partner, the company offers a number of Microsoft services which are hosted in Microsoft’s data centres - four of which are LEED Gold certified, with 74 other projects going through certification. By 2025, Microsoft expects to power its data centres with 100% new renewable energy generation that matches its electricity consumption on an annual basis. Microsoft has also pledged to put more water back into the environment than they consume as well as to produce zero waste for its direct operations by 2030.
Konica Minolta’s Cloud Print Solution Workplace Pure is hosted in the Open Telekom Cloud, which is provided by the Telekom data centre in Biere, Bördeland near Magdeburg in Germany. With a 1.3 PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) rating it requires 30 percent less energy than comparable data centres - a performance that the US certifier USGBC has awarded gold status according to the internationally recognised LEED rating. In addition, the Telekom data centre is powered 100% by electricity from renewable energy sources.  
In addition, Konica Minolta operates two of its own data centres in Hanover, Germany, and Stockholm, Sweden. From here it offers Infrastructure as a Service, a virtual IT infrastructure environment including a virtual network, virtual storage, and virtual server resources for its customers. Both data centres operate with 100% renewable energy and are ISO 14001 certified, whilst the site in Hanover does not need any extra cooling or air conditioning up to an outside temperature of 27°C as it is instead cooled solely by the ambient air.

Using Cloud Computing sustainably

Whilst the use of Cloud Computing and data centres isn’t without environmental impact, there is enough choice available for it to be a viable and potentially more sustainable alternative to on-premise hosting. By carefully considering a number of factors, the use of Cloud Computing and Virtualisation can reduce energy usage and CO2 emissions, thus helping your organisation to reach its individual sustainability goals.

This may also be interesting for you:

Ensure your business stays competitive in the Hybrid Working world with Managed Print Services

The post-pandemic workplace landscape has seen remarkable changes. Although...