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Imagen's Perspective on Cloud Storage and Sustainability

Date: January 21, 2022

Over the past few years, the scale and urgency of the need to tackle climate change has become increasingly obvious. For an ever-growing number of businesses, environmental goals such as energy and waste reduction, or achieving carbon neutrality, have become more than just key performance indicators to be met. They’re more important than ever to businesses and customers who recognise that doing nothing is no longer an option.

According to the 2021 Gartner CEO Survey, 45% of respondents believe that climate change mitigation will have “a significant impact on their business.” It cites the phrase ‘Carbon-Intelligent’ cloud as cloud providers respond to this growing focus on sustainability, making it a positive point of difference. As Gartner points out: [future] choice of cloud services providers may hinge on a provider’s ‘green’ initiatives, trading increased costs to help meet ambitious carbon-neutral corporate goals.

Against this backdrop, the rise of cloud computing has often been portrayed as problematic. With storage, compute and other services concentrated in huge data centres, the power demands for servers and their cooling infrastructure raise important environmental questions. However, today’s leading cloud providers are all committed to lowering the environmental impact of cloud storage, and with many already carbon-neutral, the cloud is often much greener than the on-premises alternatives.

At Imagen, we work with cloud providers that are committed to using renewable energy.

In addition to this, organisations can achieve sustainability targets by a more intelligent and flexible approach to buildings and staff. Flexible and home working could encourage businesses to downsize to a smaller premise - or even to close the office altogether. For staff, remote working either some (or all) of the time reduces travel and the emissions associated with it.

The changing cost of cloud

There’s no doubt that cloud services have an environmental impact - all information and communications technology (ICT) does. ICT equipment accounted for 3.7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, with this figure predicted to double by 2025. Cloud activities make up a significant portion of this. While Google says that a single search accounts for around 0.2 grams of CO2, and some estimates put a single email at 1g of CO2, the sheer scale of cloud activity means that even these small amounts quickly add up.

But today’s cloud is far different to what came before, with an increasing number of providers now either carbon-neutral, or committed to achieving neutrality within the next couple of years. AWS, Azure and Oracle’s data centres will all run on 100% renewable energy by 2025, for example. Meanwhile, Google has committed to being completely Carbon Free by 2030.

Cloud data centres still use a lot of energy. Yet despite the increasing demand for cloud resources to power new technologies and services, studies suggest that these will be offset by further improvements in efficiency. A Microsoft-funded study found that, with renewable energy taken into account, the emissions from Azure Compute are already at least 92% lower than a conventional on-premises data centre.

Much of the secret to lowering the environmental impact of cloud storage lies in the increased operational efficiency possible in a large-scale cloud data centre. Dynamic provisioning helps cloud providers avoid one of the major pitfalls of the on-premises data centre, where resources are specified for peak demand, yet spend most of their time working far below this capacity. The cloud data centre’s resources can be monitored, with the overcapacity carefully managed according to the predicted demand.

The sheer number of users in a cloud data centre gives them another efficiency advantage. With thousands of applications serving millions of users, the time and nature of ‘peak demand’ changes. Instead of a huge peak when, for example, everyone gets into work and checks email, diverse workloads and user groups place a more consistent demand on resources. This ‘multi-tenancy’ means that the same workloads and peak demands can be met by fewer servers overall, consuming far fewer resources.

For companies seeking to cut their carbon emissions, the move to cloud storage makes increasing sense. Aside from all the benefits of reduced management and complexity, cloud storage benefits environmentally from its economy with resources. Simply put, you can achieve higher levels of availability and redundancy with a smaller amount of hardware, using less power.

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Are all cloud providers equally ‘green’?

While the emissions of major cloud services are on a steady downward trajectory, providers are at different points in the journey. Additionally, the availability of renewable energy varies with region. In practice, this means that the environmental cost of the cloud varies with provider and location.

Imagen works with cloud providers that are committed to renewable energy and are electing to use resources in regions which are already running 100% renewable energy. With this approach, despite a 4x growth in the use of cloud services in the past 5 years, our overall CO2 consumption is declining. While we are working to reduce this to zero, we are at least able to offset these emissions through gold standard projects.

Centralising resources for increased sustainability

Simply moving services, storage and workload to the cloud reduces the environmental cost of doing business. But cloud services also enable smarter, greener ways of working. In particular, cloud-based productivity and workflow tools such as digital asset management (DAM) can deliver multiple other benefits.

By centralising and organising asset storage in a single, controlled location, a DAM lets multiple collaborators and contributors work on the same set of files.

A DAM eliminates the need to copy files to multiple local computers and servers
It cuts down on the ICT resources needed across the organisation and its partners
Secure, accessible hosting removes the need for improvised sharing via third-party cloud services, again reducing resource use.

Perhaps most significantly, collaborative working tools support team members and stakeholders to work together on projects without the need to physically be together, massively reducing the emissions generated through unnecessary travel.

DAMs deliver additional workforce and resource savings by streamlining everyday workflows. By enabling easy retrieval of assets, they reduce the time wasted by team members looking for, losing and having to recreate missing material. New projects are faster and leaner, improving productivity and, again, cutting down on the resources needed to do the same amount of work.

When it comes to distribution, DAMs can again help. Fully featured DAMs can globally distribute large assets like broadcast quality video to licensing or production partners. Screeners and broadcast content can be sent via the cloud, rather than incurring the environmental costs of creating and couriering physical media. Content can even be served directly from the library to partner websites or streaming customers, again reducing the need to duplicate content and the services - such as authentication - needed to keep it secure.

In the wake of Covid, with less demand for office space, and less need to base IT infrastructure at office sites, businesses are reevaluating how they host essential business apps and services. The cloud presents the opportunity not just to scale down expensive on-premises data centres, but to improve your organisation’s sustainability - all while supporting the rapid changes in the way we all work.

Imagen’s environmental focus doesn’t come at the cost of flexible and secure asset storage. Discover more about why storage matters, and how Imagen supports the widest range of storage strategies

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