The environmental impact of cloud computing

Drew McPayne, Product and Operations Director, LCT Software

Across the globe, people are collectively accelerating action to tackle climate change, with technology playing a vital role. For many, the advancement of cloud computing, in particular, has allowed governments and institutions to digitalize, lessening their physical environmental impact and providing access to unlimited space and computing power.

Yet, although cloud services unlock vast potential, the rapid expansion of IT infrastructure raises questions about the environmental impact of this growth. Is the perception that cloud computing is a greener alternative true? How much energy does cloud computing use, and is this worse for the environment than using paper documents?

What is the cloud?

Organizations around the world are striving to be more digital. The move from paperless to digital and cloud-based approach is a critical step in digital transformation that most companies want to achieve.

The cloud is where data can be collected, analyzed, and stored in specialized shared data centers all over the world, before being accessed anywhere through web-enabled services. Because of the ability to constantly update cloud solutions, its high levels of security, flexibility, and accessibility, it is quickly becoming the go-to solution for commercial and government systems. The removal of paper and moving to the cloud all sounds very green, right? But what we’ve not perhaps considered is the high demand and duplication of files requires a huge amount of power.

Despite a sizable amount of electricity required to power and cool servers, large data centers are more likely to recover and reuse heat cost-effectively, than locally stored, on-premises servers. If demand growth and efficiency savings are aligned, then data center capacity growth won’t significantly increase energy requirements.

However, during the paper to digital transition, companies will experience an increased carbon footprint, as companies use both paper and the cloud.

Cloud storage must be used effectively for it to have a greater green benefit, with end-users needing to be educated to be mindful of their contribution. If the same data is stored in multiple locations, it doubles the space needed on the cloud. This increase in cloud space results in higher energy usage for the data center.

The lessons must be to educate users and provide tools that only use one data source. This will take time, but there is a current lack of awareness about the impact of digital duplication.

The progress of sustainability in cloud computing

Cloud computing is gaining in popularity as organizations seek to digitalize, and the reduction in environmental impact may be part of their consideration. Some of the leading cloud providers, such as Google have been evaluating their own sustainability and setting ambitious goals; looking to achieve net-zero emissions across all their operations and value chain by 2030.

Google invests billions into renewable energy and science-based technology to reduce these emissions, which takes huge strides to help make the cloud greener. Although many companies are making positive changes using technology, there has been much debate on the sustainability and effectiveness of carbon offsetting as a long-term strategy.

We believe that a carbon offsetting strategy can be effective if it reduces more carbon emissions than it has incurred and is permanent. However, the best method would be to cut back emissions from the source.

LCT Software: Balancing the vision with the now

Climate changes across the globe remain a growing concern and we care about doing our part, taking steps to become more sustainable and make a positive difference. We use Google Cloud because aside from its global locations and advanced security, we believe that its vision to be carbon neutral and reduce its global footprint is the right way forward.

We also regularly monitor our use of the cloud. Within our solutions, we look to integrate into existing systems to make processes as simple as possible and keep documents stored in a single location. This reduces the storage of multiple documents across the organization, minimizing the server requirement.

As a business, we continuously look at additional ways to further minimize the impact we have on the environment. The team focuses on developing code that reduces energy use and consumption. Part of this has seen us adopt a microservice architecture, which assists with lower latency than the cloud because the servers are physically closer to the device which means less data needs to be stored. We also use autoscaling which provides an automated approach to increase or decrease the memory and networking resources, meaning unnecessary data and energy won’t be used.

Our vision is to create an organization that operates and develops solutions that help with these bigger environmental causes. We will continue to invest in ways that minimize our impact for future generations. Our role is not just to provide solutions, we need to enable change, educate others and ourselves.

How can we work together to tackle climate change?

We believe that everyone in the supply chain has a responsibility for reducing their impact on the environment. COP26 stated that nearly 38 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from the built environment. This is huge and one we take seriously…

So is the move from paper to digital the best approach to help save the environment? Yes, cloud computing may not offer the perfect solution, but it is a step in the right direction. And there is plenty we can all do to manage our digital and cloud footprint to further decrease our impact.