Microsoft-WSP Study Highlights Environmental Benefits of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing provides companies with more than just an efficient way to store, protect and analyze large amounts of data. A new study reveals the significant environmental benefits realized by transitioning from traditional on-premises data centers to the cloud.

Microsoft Corporation, in partnership with WSP USA, has released The Carbon Benefits of Cloud Computing: A Study on the Microsoft Cloud, which determined how cloud data centers are reducing the carbon footprint associated with computing.

WSP conducted the study, which included interviewing key stakeholders, collecting operational data and modeling energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for on-premises and cloud-based deployment scenarios.

The study, which builds upon Microsoft’s 2010 report, Cloud Computing and Sustainability: The Environmental Benefits of Moving to the Cloud, will help Microsoft highlight the environmental benefits of its cloud services. This in-turn will help Microsoft’s customers understand how they can use cloud data center services to reduce the energy and carbon impact of their IT operations.

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A new study shows the impact that cloud data centers are having in reducing the carbon footprint associated with computing.

Significant Energy

Information technology (IT) services consume a significant amount of energy. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report determined that, in the United States alone, data centers consume about 70 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity each year—roughly 1.8 percent of the total electricity consumed in the country. This number is expected to grow to 73 billion kWh by 2020, about the same amount of energy consumed by six million homes in one year.

“Those figures would be even higher if not for the efficiencies already being incorporated by commercial cloud data centers,” said Katie Eisenbrown, senior consultant at WSP and co-author of the report. “Identifying the most sustainable ways to power this growth can result in large positive impacts at a global scale.”

“While the benefits of cloud computing are generally understood, this report uses case studies and real-world data to further build on the body of knowledge and determined the impact that key drivers have on making the cloud more efficient than on-premises,” said Dan Sobrinski, vice president of sustainability and energy at WSP and co-author of the report. “This study will help Microsoft's customers understand the carbon and energy benefits of using the Microsoft cloud.”

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Capturing the Cloud

WSP conducted the study using a quantitative model to calculate and compare the energy consumption and carbon footprint of IT applications, computer equipment and storage resources in the Microsoft cloud, to an equivalent on-premises deployment. Jon Koomey, an industry expert and Stanford University educator, conducted an independent third-party review of the methodology.

The methodology developed by WSP drew on principles of GHG accounting and life cycle assessments. 

“Assessing the full life cycle helps to ensure inclusion of all major emission sources,” said WSP’s Derek Fehrer, senior consultant and co-author of the report.

The life cycle approach provided a full picture of the environmental impact of a product or service and the required energy consumption, including:
- raw material extraction and equipment assembly,
- transportation of the equipment to the datacenter,
- use of the equipment and its energy consumption, and
- the end-of-life treatment and disposal of the equipment.

The study also considered the impact that Microsoft’s purchases of renewable electricity at their data centers across the globe have on emissions associated with the Microsoft cloud.

WSP engaged with dozens of stakeholders to obtain the numerous inputs required to ensure a comprehensive analysis. Managing the data and translating diverse operational information into a consistent framework required flexible models and rigorous data management practices.

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©2016 WSP USA

Derek Fehrer (right), Katie Eisenbrown (right) and Dan Sobrinski of WSP USA served as co-authors of The Carbon Benefits of Cloud Computing.

Energy and Emission Benefits

The study found that the Microsoft cloud is up to 93 percent more energy-efficient and can result in 98 percent lower carbon emissions than traditional enterprise data centers. Although the efficiency and carbon emission improvements vary depending upon the service being evaluated and the characteristics of the on-premises deployment, the study found significant energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction in all cases considered.

Those savings were attributed to four key factors:
- IT operational efficiency – Commercial cloud services can operate with greater efficiency than smaller, on-premises deployments thanks to large-scale dynamic provisioning and multitenancy, which allow for more efficient use of IT resources.
- IT equipment efficiency – Microsoft tailors its large-scale hardware components to find the most efficient ways to power the specific needs of its services.
- Data center infrastructure efficiency – Advanced technologies significantly reduce electricity requirements for lighting, cooling and power conditioning.
- Renewable electricity – Consolidated electricity demand creates the potential for large-scale purchases of green power that would not be otherwise viable.

“Societally, shifting computer resources from localized, on-premises data centers to the hyper-scale data centers that power the cloud will reduce the carbon impacts of information and communication technologies and help responsibly power the IT revolution,” Sobrinski said.

“The methodology we developed in this project can be carried forward to quantify and compare the environmental impacts of certain IT operational practices and bring sustainability into strategy conversations,” Fehrer said.

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Dan Sobrinski


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