Is Cloud Computing Really More Sustainable? by@zacamos

Is Cloud Computing Really More Sustainable?

Cloud computing has revolutionized technology and is often viewed as highly sustainable. It reduces energy consumption, opens up budgets, implements virtualization, and has high scalability, all of which have environmental benefits. However, cloud computing also has high security concerns, creates a false perception of its carbon footprint because of its digital nature, and runs 24/7. Cloud computing is beneficial for the environment, but there are numerous practices that could make it even better.
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Zac Amos

Zac is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he covers cybersecurity, AI and more.

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Many environmentalists make a case for cloud computing as a more sustainable option. Companies no longer need to waste money or space by giving servers data centers, but some are skeptical that cloud computing is the ideal solution. Analyzing its energy use and carbon footprint, will cloud computing be the answer environmentalists crave?

What Cloud Computing Offers the Modern Age

Storing data on personal devices only accessible through local networks is an antiquated concept now that cloud computing exists. Utilizing internet-connected devices with shared data centers instead makes information available from anywhere at all times.

Since so much information is stored there, does it hurt the environment? It’s a complex answer, given that the data industry is still a mixed bag of renewable energy and fossil fuels.

The best cloud computing can offer is a change in mindset in the tech industry. It will force comprehensive technological development, dissolve the obligation for massive infrastructure, and open conversations regarding carbon-conscious practices.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, internet traffic has only increased with the spike in work-from-home business models and trends like streaming. By adopting the cloud in the first place, tech access already became 65% faster with streamlined processes. Working from home has proven more sustainable and cloud computing only adds to that existing benefit. Because companies can store data remotely, fewer cars are commuting and fewer offices need as much power.

Environmental Benefits and Drawbacks

Though the cloud has various positives, it also has a few issues to keep an eye on. Here’s a look at what cloud computing can do for the Earth.

Pro — Cloud Computing Reduces Energy Consumption

In a 2013 study, customer relationship management software, digital productivity tools, and emails were measured by how much energy they used in cloud-based software versus traditional business software.

Because of the different system components running cloud software — such as personal devices over mainframe servers — it used over 80% less energy. Technology has only advanced and the operation methods for cloud computing are still the same. They also use less energy simply because they eliminate the need for as many traditional data centers.

Con — The Digital Nature Creates False Perceptions

Data centers take up physical space. It is visibly apparent when those areas disappear from mainstream offices because a company switched to cloud computing. However, cloud computing’s digital facade creates the false perception that it cannot create a carbon footprint because it doesn’t have tangibility.

It can still create digital waste and a carbon footprint, especially with other technologies alongside cloud computing like blockchain and AI. Still, it could be overlooked and under-considered to the point companies may not feel the need to continue improving their green initiatives.

Pro — Cloud Computing Opens up Budgets

Money businesses would have used to purchase equipment, obtain licenses and hire extra professionals to manage tangible assets would become obsolete. This could be a sustainable move, as businesses could use this free budget to optimize other sustainability goals in the company.

Con — Security Concerns Are More Likely in the Cloud

How does cybercriminal activity affect the environment? Because data centers were in-house operations — only accessible by employees in the building or through their IT teams — they didn’t have as many entry points for threats.

Cybercriminal activity has a massive impact on the environment with its energy use. Hackers target companies providing environmental relief but also monetize off natural disasters because people are more vulnerable. Cloud computing gives outfits more targets that will only increase the damage they cause to the atmosphere.

Pro — Cloud Computing Uses Virtualization

Instead of relying on physical hardware, cloud computing can use virtual machines, which are computers existing only in code. They do the work of multiple operating systems concurrently. This is sustainable because it decreases power usage by using fewer servers and minimizing e-waste due to owning less hardware.

Con — Idle Services Run 24/7

Even though it’s proven cloud computing uses less energy and saves companies money, it requires extra attention. Because cloud computing is a 24/7 operation, programs are necessary to prevent idle resources from constantly running, also called auto-parking.

The millions of hours workers are not using cloud services but the cloud is still working generates unnecessary energy and digital waste. Investing in these services seems like an additional cost when a business is attempting to save money by switching to cloud computing in the first place. Still, it is a more proactive approach.

Pro — Cloud Computing Scales

The scalability of cloud computing is unparalleled compared to old methods. Data centers have limited capacity and access, whereas cloud computing has infinite storage and can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection. Instead of installing physical tech like mainframes, cloud computing is self-updating and monitored at a remote location. This frees up personal and company time and money for achieving more business goals.

Progress for Cloud Computing

Understanding the waste cloud computing produces creates opportunities for improvement. Even though cloud computing cuts the energy consumption of servers by 87%, it’s not the end of innovation.

Cloud computing still uses energy from creation — hosting, uploading, transmitting and eventually sunsetting all use energy. To become even more eco-friendly, cloud computing must consider:

  • Green hosting: For Cloud giants like Google and Azure, it is their responsibility as much as others to work with cloud hosts to require sustainable powering and third-party green business certificates to verify their commitment to the planet.
  • The e-waste problem: Shared data centers still need coolant chemicals and batteries to operate. These are only a few environmentally unfriendly and toxic materials that go into the business.
  • Well-rounded environmental design: Not all cloud computing requires using green standards for development and even those that do don’t consider the whole picture. Energy efficiency is excellent, but what about using recycled materials and toxic chemicals in production?
  • Creating a circular end-of-life cycle: Just because cloud computing is primarily digital doesn’t mean technology doesn’t become obsolete. Companies still need to consider e-waste even though they inherently make less. This involves opposing planned obsolescence and creating more sound hardware for longevity.

The high traffic going through existing data centers will only increase, as they already consume 1% of global electricity demand. Cloud computing will have to push as a stronger competitor as demand increases, prioritizing eliminating e-waste and using renewable energies to power their data centers.

Moving to the Cloud for the Earth

Though the discussion around the suitability of cloud computing is complex, it provides helpful insights into the nuanced future of technology. While this technology is sustainable, it could be even more so. It requires more management than other solutions, but that doesn’t mean cloud computing isn’t worth investigating for a greener future in technology.

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