Cloud can reduce greenhouse emissions, but don't assume it's automatic

Organizations can't outsource environmental challenges, warns Gartner

"Organizations can't just outsource their environmental challenges to public cloud providers," analyst firm Gartner has warned.

In a report published last month titled "Quick Answer: How Green Are Public Cloud Providers?" Gartner concluded that opting for cloud storage over traditional legacy datacenters can cut associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 70 to 90 percent.

However, the GHG savings that come from adopting cloud do not accrue automatically. The power sources available to your organization, and to hyperscalers, can shift the dial.

"In regions where coal and fossil fuels are key to power generation, datacenters will have the greatest opportunity to reduce GHG emissions by migrating to the cloud. This is because these areas have more CO2 emitted per hour, and thus have the most room for reduction," said Gartner.

Weather also comes into play by determining how much energy and water is required to keep the infrastructure cool.

"The goal of a public cloud provider is to expend more energy on running the IT equipment than cooling the environment where the equipment resides," the analyst said.

Even in situations where the same provider operates a cloud in the same region, power usage effectiveness (PUE) varies greatly. A datacenter's design alters PUE, as does how and if it leverages the most power-efficient servers.

Datacenters use plenty of water and Gartner worries that public clouds are not consistently good at tracking it.

Newer hardware is typically more power efficient, an important issue as Gartner said operators of on-premises datacenters refresh their infrastructure every five years or less often. Public cloud providers typically operate hardware refresh lifecycles of three to five years.

Yet big clouds have recently started sweating their tech for longer. Microsoft extended the life of some servers to six years, while Google stretched to four. Salesforce also said it would run its infrastructure, including servers, an extra year.

Hardware lifecycle also impacts sustainability because making new kit consumes resources and produces GHG. Replacing old kit creates waste.

Circular economies help to ameliorate the impact of junked kit, but in 2022 only 17 percent of e-waste was recycled. Those numbers cover a time when supply chain problems bolstered the appeal and, at the time, necessity of using recycled materials.

Printed circuit boards are the most recycled component [PDF], with reuse rates at 34 percent thanks to their high value.

"From a circularity perspective, public cloud providers are inherently better than legacy on-premises datacenters," determined Gartner. "This is because product ownership is retained by the cloud service provider, which has the scale, commercial interest and capabilities to invest in circularity practices to reduce and eliminate waste, contributing to fewer GHG emissions than traditional on-premises datacenters." ®

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