Earth Day 2011: Cloud Computing…can it help?

The global scale of climate and energy challenges is daunting. As world population approaches the 7 billion mark a growing majority people now live in cities. These billions of new urbanites need energy; energy for lights, for heating, for cooling; energy for transportation, housing and emergency services, energy for water systems and sanitation, and they want the same conveniences and luxuries that city dwellers in developed cities already enjoy.


As demand for new services increase, so too will demand for energy-related services, and the global supply of fossil fuels will continue to dwindle while the climate and human health impacts of our energy infrastructure are felt ever more acutely.  This raises fundamental questions of how to support growing urban populations while maintaining or increasing current standards of living. Without doubt, this is a defining challenge for both public and private institutions.


As we face this challenge there are some encouraging trends; according to the 2011 Clean Edge report, an annual assessment of the clean energy marketplace, the 2010 market value of three benchmark clean-energy technologies — biofuels, solar photovoltaics, and wind power — was $188 billion, up 35 percent from just one year prior. This is exciting, but the reality is that the majority of our energy in the short run will still come from fossil fuels and as long as this is the case, energy efficiency and conservation will be vital components of a sustainable future.


So, on this Earth Day, I want to reflect on how an information technology company might help in the quest for a more sustainable future.  As many readers are probably already aware, IT accounts for about two percent of the world’s energy use, but that percentage is growing as demand for IT services increases, so it’s incumbent upon us to design software and IT infrastructure and services that maximize performance while minimizing energy consumption, a goal that is especially true when it comes to the cloud computing.


So what is “cloud computing?” Think about the services that run on your PC or handheld device - email, websites, social networks, news services, search results, business infrastructure, banking systems, text messaging. All of these, and many more, are powered by the cloud. But this is just the beginning.  Building management systems, transportation systems, energy grids, water monitoring, ocean health tracking, air quality, crop yields, human health implications of pollution -- all of these computational resources can be delivered on demand in the cloud.


The cloud will allow us to rethink the role of IT and energy, so that we’re not just thinking about how to reduce the impact of IT, but also about how IT can reduce the impact of the other 98 percent of the energy consumed by buildings, transportation, industrial processes, etc. At Microsoft, I get to work with people and teams who can envision a highly integrated, energy-smart landscape that maximizes efficiency and performance in a resource-constrained world. Information technology is key to making that future possible.


IT and cloud computing also enable society to have a new level of understanding about the resource and systems which we depend on. More powerful computational tools are opening new worlds to scientists, helping them to unlock our understanding of the world’s oceans and rainforests and the vast, interconnected systems on which life on Earth depends. Citizens too, will benefit from a democratization of information as the cloud powers tools that will enable everyone with a stake in clean air and clean water to take part in knowledge gathering and sharing with tools like the Worldwide Telescope and Eye On Earth.


Cloud computing, simply put, is changing everything, but it comes with a serious energy and carbon cost.  Absent a change in the way our industry is run, energy consumption will grow rapidly.  There are, however, alternatives which can dramatically reduce the amount of energy associated with software services.  For example.  a recent study by  Accenture and WSP Environment and Energy found that customers who choose to run common business applications in the cloud can reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions on a per-user basis by 30 to 90 percent versus running those same applications on-premises. 


There is tremendous work  that needs to be done if a sustainable future is to be realized. I believe information technology has tremendous transformative role in enabling a sustainable future, but this can only happen if all the stakeholders – businesses, government, scientists, citizens – seize the opportunity to leverage that power in service of a common goal: a world that can sustain economic growth and quality of life for all for the long term.

We would be glad to have your thoughts or feedback on the work we are doing, and suggestions that you think can help make a difference I would also encourage you to stay connected to our work through our newly designed website.

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