Is cloud computing green?

Christopher Mines [Posted by Christopher Mines]


Hello, let me introduce myself to our Vendor Strategy Blog readers and participants; I am Forrester's lead analyst in Green IT. My job is to understand enterprise requirements for more sustainable IT infrastructure and processes, and especially to help Vendor Strategists in hardware, software, and services respond to those requirements.

I have been working recently with many of the largest IT services companies about their green IT and sustainability practices and offerings (Market Overview report here). Many of these service providers are of course also the big players in IT infrastructure outsourcing. In the course of discussions with strategists and marketers at these vendors, I was struck by the disconnect between their green IT services and outsourcing or cloud computing offerings. Not a single outsourcing or cloud services provider is using the sustainability angle as a differentiator or business rationale for adopting those services.

Now, clearly the "green cloud" will need some work -- first, we'll have to think up a better name! And suppliers will have to provide cost/benefit arithmetic to potential customers that spells out the green benefits of infrastructure outsourcing side-by-side with its other business case justifications like cost, rapid innovation, simplicity, and expertise. Green is not THE reason that companies will move applications to the cloud, but it can and should be A reason for such migration.

Simply put, a cloud implementation of a given application or service will have a smaller energy and carbon footprint than an on-premise implementation. Why? Because the service provider operates at greater scale, so its energy consumption per application or per transaction is lower; also, the data centers of the cloud providers are much further along than the typical enterprise in putting green IT practices like virtualization and power management in place.

And let's be clear: enterprises cannot simply offload their IT energy & carbon footprint on outsourcing providers. Customers will still be responsible for the carbon emissions done on their behalf by a service provider, just like they must account for emissions from their electric utility based on their usage. But those IT-related emissions will be LOWER than an in-house implementation.

So, a prediction, a recommendation, and a request for your input.

  • Prediction: as energy costs continue to climb, as energy availability becomes a more frequent concern, and as carbon becomes another liability that companies have to track, report, and audit -- the appeal of IT outsourcing will grow.
  • Recommendation: service providers should incorporate green attributes in their positioning of IT outsourcing.
  • Request: what do you think? Obvious, crazy, or somewhere in between? And what's the better name for the "green cloud" ?? 


re: Is cloud computing green?

"Green is not THE reason that companies will move applications to the cloud, but it can and should be A reason for such migration."I think this line captures it all--well stated Christopher. For those advocating a move to a cloud-environment, knowing they could gain support from corporate EH&S teams will be important. In terms of names, a lot of folks still haven't gotten a handle on "cloud" so I would skip the "green cloud" and keep it simple: cloud computing can deliver quantifyable results against your organization's environmental goals.

re: Is cloud computing green?

Good pitch. It would be interesting to see the vendors compete on stats like unit of energy per transaction. But you did miss an obvious opportunity: renewable energy to power the data center. Especially with stimulus funds and the depreciation schedule available, solar can actually have a pretty decent short term ROI, then free electricity for 20 years or so. There's also fuel cells from companies like Fuel Cell energy that are not only green, but also provide a very high quality, consistent power without the spikes that often come from the grid.