Much has been written about the cloud computing revolution, particularly about the many ways it may be an inherently sustainable move for humanity at large. And yet data centers require massive amounts of energy to run, enough to account for 1.5 percent of US electricity needs by 2020, according to the EPA. And, even as it is now, a Greenpeace study shows that much of that energy is gleaned from fossil fuels, with huge data centers run by Amazon, Apple and Microsoft sourcing only about 15% of the energy they need from renewables.
Still, there’s much about cloud computing that is green, and, with basic reforms, it has the potential to be far more sustainable than our current working model, fitting in entirely with the green business mentality.
So just what is the cloud, and why might it be right for your eco-minded business?
The cloud, essentially, is a network of pooled servers. Rather than storing your data directly on your computer or an external hard drive, or relying on a warehouse full of proprietary servers to power a business’s everyday computing needs, companies on the cloud instead outsource the storage and backup of their data to a third-party, cloud computing company that is responsible for running, updating and maintaining the servers. Users then access their data via the internet on the device of their choosing.
Why the Cloud is Eco-Friendly
1. It’s Paperless
Paper is the enemy of all green businesses. From deforestation to the carbon emitted during production and transport to the energy that goes into recycling it, paper holds a huge footprint. The cloud can eliminate a green business’s paper addiction. With programs like Google Drive and Dropbox, files are shared without the need for printing. And with mobile devices, there’s no need to take paper notes, keep track of time in a notebook, write job tickets, or rely on carbon paper to have any record of a transaction. Instead, all companies need do is give their employees a smartphone or tablet, choose their cloud computing service, and login to enter data.
2. It Pools Infrastructure and Energy Costs
When a company runs its own servers, there’s a whole infrastructure to consider. Servers require cooling mechanisms and lighting, regular maintenance, updating and more. This is as true for proprietary servers as it is for those that operate in the cloud, with the key difference being that in the cloud version, resources are pooled. This makes sense, first, on a measure of scale — it’s more efficient to power a large number of servers than it is to power many smaller pockets
— and, second, in terms of maximum efficiency. With pooled servers, there’s no wasted space. When a company no longer needs certain server space, someone else will step in for them, or the local workstation will simply stop requesting energy.
3. It Can Reduce Carbon Emissions
With reduced energy consumption comes reduced carbon emissions. One study found that large US companies relying on cloud computing instead of proprietary servers could cut their carbon emissions by as much as 85.7 million tons annually by 2020.
There is, as we’ve said, the problem of data centers sourcing their power through unsustainable means. But not all of them are. Yahoo, for instance, has situated its data centers near clean energy hubs, and only 18.3% of its portfolio consists of coal-based power. Google’s record, though not quite as strong, has started a subsidiary called Google Energy, which buys electricity from independent renewable power producers, like wind and solar. It also buys carbon offsets to power green initiatives, like animal waste management systems. The more cloud computing companies come to rely on renewable energy, the greater a cloud-reliant business’ carbon emissions will fall further down the chain.
Why the Cloud is Efficient for Small Green Businesses
First, as this excellent guide to cloud computing shows, the cloud is just generally more efficient for businesses, regardless of the eco-factor. That said, there are number of ways that the cloud can be more efficient for small businesses in a very green way. That’s because the cloud allows companies to…
1. Outsource Hosting
There’s no need to put aside a massive budget for keeping servers and infrastructure up to date, nor to pay for large energy costs, data center staff members or updates. This lowers a business’s local footprint, too. It also makes a business much more flexible in terms of scaling, as it won’t have to purchase server space and infrastructure before it’s needed. Hmm… Never using more than you need… Doesn’t that sound like a green principle to you?
2. Collaborate More Efficiently
No more sending faxes back and forth, or losing yourself in an email thread. Combine services like Google Docs and Basecamp with social media and Salesforce, and small businesses will not only have a much wider reach, but they’ll also have a much easier time sparking momentum with collaborative green initiatives. Let’s say, for example, you’d like to lobby for greater recycling in the region. Start by creating a Google Doc for brainstorming and sharing it with collaborator. Then start a project on Basecamp and easily assign tasks with due dates. Finally, using the power of social media, get the message to a wide network of people. That’s environmental and social change, all without ever printing a flier.
Because workers can access the cloud through their mobile devices, there’s no need to come into the office unless absolutely needed. This may not make much of a difference for the person who lives around the block, but if a small business has a high percentage of commuters, this will cut down on transportation-related carbon emissions as well as the amount of lost time spent stuck in traffic. It is this same feature that powers outsourcing of mundane or expert tasks to the best person for the job, even if that’s a freelancer halfway across the world.
The cloud is a great option for small businesses regardless of the green benefits, as it increases efficiency, productivity, flexibility and mobility. But the cloud increases a small business’ green profile, as well, and problems with data center energy consumption speak to larger issues with our energy grid. As we switch in greater numbers to a clean energy society, the cloud will become ever more the green solution for working. And it’s already pretty great now.
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