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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About the Writer
Since I’ve joined Facebook (commonly known to users as FB), I’ve been introduced to a number of entertaining and, sometimes, inspiring videos. I’ve enjoyed both real and virtual friends’ favorite singers and comedians, environmental films, and inspirational lectures. Sometimes the postings come from friends of friends, in the fascinating viral spreading that is integral to the FB experience. Today, one of those friend posted a video that simply amazed me. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, as the video was from TED.
When I first heard of TED, I thought (admit it, some of you did, too) that TED was a person. I soon learned that the word is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. If you’re not yet familiar with TED, you’re missing out on a phenomenal resource for ideas worth hearing. The site hosts lectures, called TED Talks, by some of “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” While I’ve viewed only a fraction of the 400+ TED Talks posted on the website, I’ve never been disappointed by the quality of the speaker or the importance of the information shared.
But, in my estimation, as brilliant as any speaker is the idea of TED itself.
TED started in 1984, as an annual conference designed for some of the brightest minds to share their best ideas and most inspiring performances. Today, videotapes of the annual conference’s 50 featured speakers are made available to the public as TED Talks — for free — on the web. And, through the TED Open Translations project, 100 volunteers translate these talks into 50 languages, making them accessible to much of the world’s population.
Each year, three outstanding people from all disciplines are awarded the TED Prize, which is accompanied by $100,000 and the granting of the recipient’s “One Wish to Change the World.” The prize winners’ talks are some of the highlights of the site. Today, I watched Sylvia Earle, a 2009 winner, persuasively explain the urgent need to protect the world’s oceans — what she calls the “blue heart” of the earth. It was a powerful reminder of how damaged our oceans are — and how necessary they are to our very survival.
It’s easy to lose oneself in the TED website. There’s just so much to see and to learn about. I started out by following a link to last year’s TED Prize winners and — as a former teacher — was drawn to Dave Eggers’s wish:
“I wish that you — you personally and every creative individual and organization you know — will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area, and that you’ll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships.”
From that statement, I explored Eggers’ blog on TED, which contains video clips about some of the volunteer projects his wish inspired: writers’ workshops at 826LA (part of the volunteer organization he founded), a sensory experience with chocolate and children in Chicago, and a Drawathon in New York for the benefit of 826NYC. I was thoroughly captivated by the responses to his wish.
Like Eggers, every TED Prize winner is supported by Community members who want to help the honoree make their wish a reality. Readers are challenged to choose a wish that resonates with them, then find a way to be part of solving the problem or fulfilling the wish. It’s a novel idea and a compelling one.
Building connections is woven throughout TED. Upon visiting the site, readers are invited to register and become part of the TED Community. But this registration isn’t just “type your name and email, and choose a password.” The TED Community registration probes you to describe yourself with words like “activist,” “explorer,” or “change agent.” It asks you to tell what you’re “passionate about,” to describe “an idea worth spreading,” and more. It even asks for your own TED story. I joined tonight, while working on this story, so I can’t testify to the robustness of the TED Community, but I can tell you that there are 41,399 members and no shortage of opportunities to find kindred spirits.
The TED Prize winners aren’t the only ones who are worth listening to and watching, of course. In fact, it was a non-winning presenter whose work inspired me this afternoon. As all of the TED Talks do, this one challenged me to break open my preconceptions and make room for new knowledge. It was a lecture by Joshua Klein, “hacker and writer,” called, “On the Intelligence of Crows.”
Once you watch the crow in Klein’s video spontaneously shaping a tool to retrieve some food, you’ll never again view the crow in the same way. And that’s what TED is designed to do: inspire us to think — and act — as we never have before.
What’s your favorite TED Talk?
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