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Governmental regulation, consumer sentiment and investor demand are shifting sustainability strategies from "nice-to-have" to "must-have" for organizations across industries. To meet stakeholder expectations and a growing demand for accountability, forward-thinking business leaders are quickly embracing environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives.

When implemented effectively, these sustainability programs can have a strong impact on top and bottom lines, lead to cleaner and more efficient operations, and reduce risk to the business in the long term.

Sustainable data centers

Optimizing the energy consumption of data centers, which have become integral to business success in today's digital world, lies at the heart of many sustainability efforts. In some cases, critical workloads and data will need to remain on-premises. But in many cases they can be shifted to the cloud. This means that developing a solid cloud strategy is one of the more effective tools in the sustainability toolbox.

A "Sustainable Data Centers" graphic that indicates that optimization must occur across infrastructure, operations, and input power.

By trading on-premises servers for the consolidated footprint of public cloud data centers, organizations are leveraging cloud technology to collect, investigate and store large sums of data more efficiently, reducing their total cost of IT and lowering energy consumption in the process.

According to International Data Corp, cloud adoption has the potential to prevent more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2021 to 2024. By running on virtualized infrastructure, container platforms or serverless architecture, cloud can shift the onus from a business-run hardware management model (CapEx) to a third-party management model (OpEx) where remote data centers can deliver larger outputs with fewer servers. At the same time, cloud can help shift the focus away from individual hardware capabilities to the business outcomes that can be derived from enhanced connectivity and services.

Compared with smaller on-premises data center environments, the leading cloud service providers (e.g., Microsoft AzureGoogle Cloud and AWS) leverage economies of scale to drive efficiencies across the cloud product lifecycle — from building, transporting and operating cloud infrastructure to end-of-life disposal. Cloud marketplaces have also popped up to streamline the cloud software procurement lifecycle.

Reduce emissions with cloud

By aggregating compute resources, cloud can help reduce emissions in three distinct ways:

1. Operational efficiency

By dynamically matching server capacity with actual demand, cloud enables IT resources to operate more efficiently. Cloud service providers can monitor and predict demand, adjusting capacity automatically to reduce energy consumption. This gives providers an advantage in catering to larger user bases and meeting complex demand patterns. 

By automating this balancing act, cloud makes energy loading more predictable, makes sizing equipment more efficient and increases utilization — all of which can reduce the energy consumed per useful output.

2. Infrastructure optimization

With the demand and load on data centers growing, optimizing infrastructure to reduce electricity consumption and lower operating expenses is another priority for organizations. According to one Microsoft cloud carbon study, public cloud service providers are increasingly collaborating with OEMs to design hardware with the potential to reduce electricity consumption by up to 10 percent or more.

In addition, the hyperscale data centers that power public clouds can further reduce hardware electricity requirements through improved monitoring and advanced system designs.

3. Shifting to renewables

Most commercial cloud providers have adopted aggressive goals to switch to green power in the coming years. For instance, Google aims run all its data centers on carbon-free energy by 2030; and both Microsoft Azure and AWS plan to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. 

By consolidating distributed electricity demand, the economies of scale offered by cloud service providers should play a large role in accelerating the shift to renewables.

The many roads to sustainability

Reducing or eliminating carbon emissions is one of the key pillars of achieving sustainability targets. And while carbon elimination is virtually impossible given the state of present technology, organizations have many options to start decarbonizing and dematerializing in their journey to achieving long-term sustainability.

Given the underlying importance of data centers to modern business, there is an imminent need for businesses to invest in data center energy efficiency efforts. Cloud computing — whether via a public, private or hybrid deployment model — is one of the most impactful investments a business can make to minimize their carbon footprint. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing offer further investment opportunities for businesses to optimize computing, capacity and cooling.

WWT's experience working with the leading cloud service providers, OEMs and ISVs has taught us that each cloud and sustainable data center solution is unique. We recommend ensuring that every ESG initiative you undertake aligns with your firm's long-term sustainability goals and within operational constraints.

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