Microsoft Study Finds Cloud Computing Is Good for the Environment

By comparing on-premises business applications to cloud-based equivalents, the researchers found that cloud computing has positive effects on the environment, especially if you are a small company.

A Microsoft study bears out what environmentally-conscious companies have hoped for all along: cloud computing has the potential to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions by 30 percent or more.

Large data centers, like those run by tech giants Microsoft and Google, benefit from economies of scale and operational efficiencies, according to the study. Small businesses, of about 100 users, moving business applications away from on-site servers into the cloud can see net energy and carbon savings of more than 90 percent, the researchers wrote. For mid-sized organizations, of about 1,000 users, the savings were between 60 to 90 percent, according to the Microsoft-commissioned study.

"The cloud has the ability to deliver business value for customers in an age where corporate responsibility is critical to business success," said Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist at Microsoft.

Larger operations are generally more efficient managing server utilization and capacity, the researchers said, noting that they can increase the server capacity for an application during peak periods and decrease when not in use. Large public cloud environments are better at dynamic provisioning and can serve "millions of users" across many companies simultaneously on one "massive" shared infrastructure, according to the study.

The researchers concluded that while independent organizations can incorporate dynamic provisioning, server utilization and other strategies into their own data center, the benefits will not be as great as it would be for a large cloud provider.

The study focused on three commonly used Microsoft business applications: Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 for e-mail, Microsoft SharePoint Server 2007 for content sharing, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM for the customer relationship management platform. Each on-premise product was compared with cloud-based equivalents: Microsoft Exchange Online, Microsoft SharePoint Online, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online.

Researchers calculated the carbon footprint of server, networking and storage infrastructure for three different deployment sizes, of 100 users, 1,000 users, and 10,000 users, according to the writers. The study relied on actual data provided by Microsoft to estimate cloud-based energy use and carbon footprint.

Choosing the cloud option can enable a significant reduction in carbon emissions, and the smaller the organization, the larger the benefits, said the study. In fact, the research team calculated that 32 percent of emissions could be saved by moving 50,000 e-mail users in North America and Europe off individual Exchange servers and on to Microsoft Exchange Online.

Companies are generally considering the move to cloud computing to reduce costs and increase business flexibility. Along with hoped for reductions in the electric bill, companies are interested in minimizing the number of physical infrastructure, such as servers and switches, needed. Companies can also outsource some of the performance and management tasks.

"The benefits of cloud computing are clear: Increased productivity, reduced costs and lower management overhead of products have become key considerations for organizations evaluating Microsoft's cloud services," said Bernard.

The study focused on select Microsoft applications, but the study authors felt it was "likely" that "similar advantages" would be seen for other business applications and cloud providers.

Accenture and WSP Environment and Energy conducted the study, commissioned by Microsoft.