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Green cloud computing: a sustainable solution for reducing the environmental impact of data storage?

Published on 22 August 2023 Read 25 min

While immaterial in appearance, software currently generates as much if not more greenhouse gases worldwide than air transport, and this effect is continuing to grow. At a time when companies are increasingly engaging in CSR transformation plans, changing their data management habits can be a lever for minimizing their environmental footprint.

Through a series dedicated to the environmental and social impact of data, Alcimed invites you to explore 3 areas of transformation, including adopting sustainable data management systems, optimizing data storage, and implementing new technologies. In the third and final category, we analyze today’s novel technologies that make cloud servers less energy-consuming.

Data: an activity with a high environmental impact

Today, digital technology represents between 2-4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

An underestimated environmental footprint

Today, many companies are focusing their CSR strategies around actions such as limiting aerial transport or reducing waste. While important, these strategies are insufficient compared to the growing effects of other activities, such as data management. It is therefore important to reassess the priorities of firms and the pros and cons that each of these actions can represent.

Today, data represents between 2-4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions; by way of comparison, civilian air transport represents between 2-3% [1]. Transferring and storing data, as well as manufacturing electronic components required for the machines, are energy-consuming processes by nature: it has been estimated that the energetic consumption of data centers in 2018 was 205 TWh, or 1% of the total worldwide electricity consumption [2].

At the same time, a second study suggests that the amount of data created or replicated per year in the world may increase by 4.5-fold between 2018 and 2025 [3]. If preventative measures are not taken, the effect of data on the environment could therefore explode in the coming years – in France alone, it is estimated that data will be responsible for 7% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 [4].

The illusion of immaterial data

Despite a non-negligible effect on the environment, data is still under the radar of many companies, and it’s footprint is largely underestimated.

Three reasons can explain this:

  • The illusion of immateriality and the small financial cost can result in excessive generation of data
  • Storage practices that are energy-consuming and not adapted to the applications
  • The novel nature of Big Data technologies and lack of familiarity with them

Fortunately, there are solutions that can limit the effects on the environment and to slow down or even reverse these trends.

Find out how to adopt a strategy of digital sobriety >

Is cloud storage sustainable?

Local, cold, or cloud storage: pros and cons

The most energy efficient and secure way to store data is still local storage on one’s computer. Unfortunately, this increases the risk of losing it and can make collaboration and accessing from afar difficult.

As discussed in the second section of this series regarding the optimization of data storage, the intermediate solution is cold storage: energetically efficient, even on a local server, and secure as it is disconnected.

However, when one wishes to simultaneously share access to a document with multiple people, one must pass through a server that is connected and always available on the network. In this case, in the absence of renewable energy supply and without optimization of the management of server resources, saving data on a local server is generally better in terms of sustainability than doing so on the cloud.

A migration to the cloud that has already proven itself

According to a 2019 report, in the USA the transfer of local data to the cloud (such as that of AWS) would allow to reduce the carbon footprint of these infrastructures by a median of 88% and a minimum of 72% [5]. Of note, some cloud solution suppliers such as OVH, Google, and Microsoft are more advanced than AWS in terms of adopting locally-produced renewable energy for powering their data centers or managing electronic equipment, and could therefore attain even larger reductions.

How can green cloud computing be made even more sustainable?

Beyond the turnover of electronic devices, the impact of data is also directly linked to the electricity consumption and to the electricity mix that is used for powering data centers. It is by working on these two aspects that we can reduce the effects of digital technology. Indeed, this is precisely what migrating to green cloud computing can accomplish.

Suppliers of cloud services are currently making efforts to minimize electricity consumption of their data centers (notably with the goal of optimizing their operational costs).

For example, beyond installing solar panels, wind turbines and other local renewable energy sources, these firms optimize the effects of electricity that powers their data centers by activating several levers including:

  • Variable server powering, such that servers only consume power when it is necessary
  • Optimizing the dynamic sharing of storage space between multiple users
  • Using cutting-edge electronic hardware and software that allows for optimization of electricity consumption
  • Replacing electronic machines and devices (whose manufacturing causes pollution) at a more responsible frequency
  • Installing new sources of local, renewable energy (solar, wind turbines) or supplying with renewable sources that are close in proximity (geothermal, hydroelectric)
  • Recycling the heat that is produced by servers (for example, by heating buildings)
  • Using new cooling technologies that reduce electricity consumption (for example, cooling by water rather than air)

In France, new ideas are flourishing, such as with Denv-R, a start-up based in Guérande that will soon set up a storage center on the Loire river in Nantes. Their ambition is to relocate storage but also to minimize the environmental impact of this data center by natural cooling powered by the flow of the river.

How can migration to green cloud computing be facilitated?

The final area of transformation considered in this series is thus the migration (partial) of data to a cloud server. For example, these services can be used for storing the information that your collaborators share, such as collaborative files.

This migration does not necessarily have to involve all of your data. In certain industries, total migration may not be possible due to reasons of sovereignty or security. In this case, a partial migration of data is still possible and would be beneficial.

In the case of sensitive information (concerning clients, for example), the cloud can still be considered thanks to players such as OVH who prioritize the security and sovereignty of European data. But of course, a local server can also be used in synergy with the cloud for archiving very sensitive information, or when collaboration or accessing from distance is not necessary (in this case, one can even prioritize using external hard drives or the computer’s hard drives).

If you opt for a cloud-based solution, the only thing left to do is choose your provider. At the same level of importance as security and sovereignty concerns, you will also need to consider aspects regarding sustainability: in this area, several indicators can help you identify companies’ sustainability commitments (ISO 50001, ISO 14001, PUE, WUE, renewable energy rate, etc.).

Digital technology has truly become a high-priority environmental challenge whose impact is still exponentially growing, notably due to data storage. Migrating to the cloud (even partially) can help slow down or even reverse this trend, especially thanks to numerous energy optimization techniques put in place by providers of these services. Alcimed can support you in this transformation, from the diagnosis to the implementation, by going through all of the intermediate steps such as the communication associated with this transformation or the identification of the best partners. Don’t hesitate to contact our team!

[1] Deluzarche, C. (s. d.). Global warming: the digital sector generates more greenhouse gases than aviation. Futura.
[2] Freitag, C. et al. (2021, 1 septembre). The real climate and transformative impact of ICT : A critique of estimates, trends, and regulations. Patterns.
[3] Gaudiaut, T. (2021, 19 octobre). The Big Bang of Big Data. Statista Infographies.
[4] Commission de l’aménagement du territoire et du développement durable (2020).
[5] Bizo, D. (2019, octobre).

About the author, 

Matthieu, Consultant in Alcimed’s Data team in USA

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