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Researchers identify the energy savings of the cloud

Data center power consumption could be reduced significantly by moving software to the cloud.

Data center efficiency has become a prominent topic among IT professionals and business leaders as they consider ways of reducing operational costs. Many stakeholders are also now considering the environmental footprint they leave behind as they adopt new technology, making factors such as energy consumption a growing concern among IT decision makers. A recent study, conducted by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and funded by Google, outlined the current energy use of business software in the United States. In addition, researchers explored how much businesses could save by moving their software into cloud infrastructure.

Analysts noted that utilizing cloud data centers for email, productivity tools and customer relationship management software would create an 87 percent reduction in the energy footprint of those applications. The savings would be more substantial for businesses that rely on old infrastructure components in their data centers, with some estimates saying that companies could reduce software-related energy usage by 95 percent by shifting applications to the cloud.

Much of the push toward cloud infrastructure can be attributed to the growth of digital services. In cases where digital goods replaced physical ones, the energy savings are already significant. The music industry, for example, can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 to 80 percent by shifting away from physical disks. Researchers suggested that organizations' environmental footprint could be further reduced by leveraging the cloud for digital delivery.

A look at business software energy use
Researchers estimated that annual energy use for business email, productivity and CRM tools in the U.S. is upwards of 373 petajoules. Although data center operation accounts for 86 percent of the energy footprint, analysts emphasized the importance of considering client devices and access points in the future. Moving these three application categories to the cloud would reduce their total energy use to 47 PJ each year.

"This result is not surprising, given that the cloud is expected to use far fewer servers in far more efficient data centers compared to present-day local data centers," the report stated. "Our results also indicate smaller, but nontrivial, reductions in the embodied energy of data center IT devices in the cloud given that far fewer servers are required for the same computations."

Researchers attributed these gains to the fact that cloud providers focus more on consolidation and on facility-based efficiencies than do many enterprise data center builders. This leads to a significant reduction in the amount of hardware required to meet performance and capacity needs. The study did rely on public data that was produced in different years, meaning that results could vary greatly between cloud providers and potential savings would depend heavily on the efficiency of on-premise infrastructure that would be replaced. 

The future of the data center may be mobile
One of the factors influencing data center design is speed-to-deployment. The era of cloud computing has made scalability a major benefit and required value of many new solutions. However, it takes a lot of time to build a traditional data center, which limits scalability to some extent. One solution to this issue, according to GCN​, is the modular data center. This design offers fast deployment, giving companies and cloud infrastructure providers the ability to rapidly scale according to demand.

"Another possible advantage is that, if needed, an entire data center could simply be moved to a new location, perhaps to get out of the way of a hurricane," wrote GCN contributor John Breeden II. "Though this is not as easy as simply jumping in a car and driving away, it's at least possible with the modular data centers, whereas a traditional facility is nearly impossible to relocate without months, if not years, of planning."

Many of the employees accessing cloud resources have gone mobile, so it is not surprising that organizations such as the U.S. military are already investing in the development of modular data centers. A similar movement could improve cloud service providers' ability to scale and keep operations running smoothly.