In addition to its obvious administrative benefits, the use of the cloud has the potential to provide a significant positive environmental impact, as in many cases cloud servers are responsible for fewer emissions than their legacy counterparts. This is the conclusion of a number of recent industry studies into the sector, including a Microsoft-WSP collaborative study, which suggests that cloud computing is capable of improving energy efficiency by 93%, and producing 98% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than ‘on premises’ IT infrastructure.

Similarly, a study by Accenture, a professional services company specialising in information technology services and consulting, claims that: “Migrations to the public cloud can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 59 million tons per year, which equates to taking 22 million cars off the road.”

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However, not all cloud migration approaches are equally ‘green’. Sustainability benefits will vary, depending on a number of factors and the level of corporate commitment to sustainability.  A company must consider the deployment model – that is to say a ‘public cloud’, ‘private cloud’, ‘hybrid cloud’ or ‘multi-cloud’ – and must also consider whether to adopt software as a service, platform as a service or infrastructure as a service structures.

A multi-stage process

A ‘green cloud’ approach to cloud computing aims to reduce energy consumption and environmental impact when deploying digital devices and systems. This provides a service that is inherently more sustainable than IT infrastructure that is on a company’s premises.

Such approaches have already drawn interest from the technology sector. Accenture, together with Microsoft, GitHub and ThoughtWorks, has launched the Green Software Foundation, to spearhead the building out of a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling and leading practices for building ‘green software’ and the cloud. It believes this is the key to creating the standards that the digital technology industry can harness around.

The foundation has identified a number of cloud migration steps that are essential to success. A company must first define its strategy and build a business case. Among the needs to be addressed are: the business value to be gained by moving to the cloud, identifying that which needs to be moved and to where it should go. All these questions, and more, will be answered after a cloud migration assessment, and then the actual ‘heavy lift’ of migrating to the cloud be undertaken.

This will typically involve a degree of modernisation of existing applications for the cloud, developing new cloud-native applications and transforming the company’s architecture and infrastructure, creating a multi-stage process that will take time and resources to complete.

The Accenture study says: “Companies with consistently high environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance enjoy 4.7 times higher operating margins and lower volatility than low ESG performers over the same period,” highlighting some of the operational benefits of such processes.

Environmental impacts versus logistical difficulties

Commenting on the study, Jasmine Dhiman, technology sustainability lead for Accenture in the UK and Ireland, adds that while moving to the cloud can have a substantial impact on reducing carbon emissions this is just the first step. “Techniques such as server containerisation and virtualisation can reduce energy consumption in data centres. These techniques are only currently used by about a third of companies.

“Our experiments indicate that selecting the right ’fit-for-purpose’ coding language can reduce energy consumption, as can implementing green software coding principles,” Dhiman continues. “Similarly, choices related to the accuracy of AI can make a big difference in energy use.”

While these benefits are obvious, the very nature of making such a fundamental change to the way in which data is collected, stored and analysed brings challenges, not least the high start-up costs and uncertainty that comes from making a change of this scale. Dhiman, however, is optimistic that the benefits would outweigh the disadvantages.

“Over the past two years, there has been a surge in cloud commitment, with more than 86% of companies reporting an increase in cloud initiatives,” Dhiman says. “However, a lot of these projects have been simpler ‘lift and shift’ operations, and companies are now contending with more complex workloads that naturally take longer to migrate.

“Nonetheless, with economic uncertainty growing, costs are likely to come back to the forefront of decision-making and moving to the cloud provides immediate to long term operational cost benefits. This, alongside sustainability as another outcome for cloud optimisation, is a key driver and support engine for wider business goals.”

Making the green cloud commonplace

There are good grounds for believing that environmentally friendly platforms will soon become commonplace. “Sustainability is front and centre for most business leaders now, not a single business won’t have considered it a priority,” says Dhiman. “We are really seeing the fusion of technology and business strategy to support ESG goals.

“Aside from cutting the carbon footprint of the technology stack, the platforms themselves are helping leaders to track and report on the ESG goals. In addition, platforms providers themselves are embracing and adopting green software principles for new development as well as assessing the ’green code index‘ of existing platforms.”

Nonetheless, there aresome obstacles that remain to migrating to the green cloud. At least 43% of companies that were interviewed by Accenture for its study point to legacy applications, and the question of what to do with them, as a challenge.

Dhiman also drew attention to other potential obstacles, noting that: “Security and complexity continue to be among the most frequently-cited barriers to cloud adoption, as well as lacking the necessary cloud skills in the business.

“Not only is training with the necessary cloud skills important, but also equipping IT teams with knowledge about how their software choices impact environmental outcomes is key.”

Ultimately, the common consensus of cloud service providers and their clients is that despite some reservations to do with cost and legacy infrastructure the benefits of migrating to the cloud far outweighs the downside. Considering the environmental footprint of many of these companies, such a transition is likely to deliver benefits beyond those for individual companies, too.

Dhiman concludes: “Environmentally-driven choices when it comes to software need to become part of everyday decision-making.”