Cloud is good for business – and the environment

a year ago   •   4 min read

By Donal Óg McCarthy

The business case for cloud computing has grown stronger during Covid-19, according to Accenture cloud lead, Donal Óg McCarthy, but its green credentials will drive even greater adoption.


The rise of the cloud has brought to the fore a much broader set of business conversations on sustainable technology. Our clients were already leveraging the power of the cloud for resilience, agility and digital transformation, but we are now talking to them about the part it can play in their plans to reduce energy consumption, carbon emissions, and waste around IT operations.   


New research from Accenture shows that the cloud can have a significant impact, not just around existing services but as an enabler for more green and innovative business functions in the future. Migrating on-premise applications to a hyper-scale cloud platform can reduce carbon emissions by more than 84 percent and cut energy usage by 65 percent. Even the most sceptical finance officer might raise an eyebrow at the prospect of cloud migrations delivering a total cost of ownership savings of up to 30-40 percent.  


The savings are specific to public cloud infrastructure that sits in some of the world’s largest data centres, several of them based in Ireland. There is a counter-argument that data centres are bad for the environment because of the volume of power and water they consume, but the tables turn when economies of scale kick in. When thousands of organisations choose to share resources and run their IT services on public cloud infrastructure, rather than on-premise or in their own private data centres, the green gains are enormous.  


At a time when many companies have depreciated their on-premise assets to a point where the business case for cloud is hard to resist, the bonus of a significant carbon footprint reduction makes for a compelling combination. It will certainly strike a chord in Irish boardrooms where the pursuit of sustainable practices to help combat climate change is increasingly becoming a strategic imperative.  


Energy-efficient IT 


While the scale of energy savings might surprise business leaders, the broad environmental benefits of the cloud have always been understood. One of the early mantras was ‘you only pay for what use’, where the ability to scale services up and down speaks directly to energy efficiency. Drivers like greater workload flexibility, better server utilisation rates, and more energy-efficient infrastructure are tantalising alternative to IT stacks sitting idle in private data centres while still consuming resources.  


Cloud migration makes IT consumption more sustainable, but there’s also a cultural impact that will contribute to further reducing a company’s carbon footprint. The people part of cloud services, enabling employees to be productive from anywhere, has always been appreciated but it took Covid-19 to make the argument for remote working, and the cloud as a means towards organisational resilience incontrovertible.  


Working from home means less commuting, reducing individual carbon footprints and prompting many businesses to question the future shape of the office environment. It remains to be seen how this will play out over time, but cloud agility will be essential to cope with future uncertainties that Accenture characterises as the ‘never normal’, rather than the new normal.  


Sustainable journeys 


Every organisation’s first cloud decision is about what workloads to move and to which provider. This quickly evolves into a hybrid strategy as organisations identify different clouds for different applications and services. Almost always, there will be some portion of their systems that can’t be moved, and it will be up to internal IT to make on-premise infrastructure as carbon friendly as possible.  


What organisations soon discover is that economies of scale are the first stop on a journey to environmental sustainability, not the final destination. When you ‘lift and shift’ workloads, for example, you can expect an 84 percent reduction in carbon emissions, but it jumps to 98 percent if you start designing applications specifically for the cloud.  


Essentially, you are moving from an Infrastructure-as-a-Service model to Platform-as-a-Service, where sustainability payback is far greater. The most carbon-efficient cloud solution of all is Software-as-a-Service, where huge economies of scale make business-critical applications available on subscription.  


Other factors also come into play, like the geographic location of a cloud provider’s data centre. It will already be a consideration because of regulatory requirements around where data resides, but more environmentally driven organisations might also want to know the host country’s ambitions for carbon neutrality, as well as the cloud provider’s roadmap.  


Strategic sustainability  


Another benefit of the cloud is that you are buying services run on leading-edge architecture, where the largest tech companies in the world constantly innovate. A big part of the innovation is about making hyper-converged infrastructure greener and more carbon efficient.  


To maximise this, organisations will need to look inward and ask if its practices around leading-edge technologies are properly aligned for sustainability. How we manage resources in the cloud is as important as moving them there in the first place. Sustainable engineering practices, for example, like choosing the right coding language for a task, can impact energy consumption by as much as 50 times. 


Because the cloud makes it easier to fine-tune applications and services, it will pose strategic challenges for organisations that they have never faced before. We carried out an experiment using image recognition software that achieved 96 per cent accuracy in identifying a target object. By applying more compute power, we could nudge it up to 98 percent, but it required a seven-times increase in energy consumption to achieve a two percent improvement.  


In scenarios like this, business leaders will have to make judgement calls that will test their green credentials. They will have to make environmental business decisions in a granular way that was never previously an option. They must decide when a service or application delivers the right amount of business benefits, allowing it to fall short of optimisation that would come at too high a price environmentally.  


These are among the emerging cloud challenges that Accenture helps organisations navigate. It’s a task made easier in Ireland where many sectors, like agriculture and agritech, have already prioritised sustainability as a core value driver. With the cloud, they have an opportunity to advance their environmental strategies while leveraging leading-edge technology in a way that wasn’t possible before.  

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