The Sustainability Potential of Cloud Computing: Smarter Design

by | Jul 20, 2009

guestyIf you listen to venture capitalists and tech gurus, cloud computing is “the new dot-com,” the “biggest shift in computing in two decades” or even the “Cambrian explosion” of the technology era.

Among its other heavenly attributes, the cloud is being touted for its ability to address the enormous need for energy efficiency of IT’s own footprint.

This makes sense in that, for most financial, software and service sector companies, data centers are a major – and growing source – of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2006, the DOE estimates that U.S. data centers used 61 billion kWh of electricity, representing 1.5 percent of all U.S. electricity use, or the amount used by about 6 million US houses.

Indeed, according to McKinsey & Co’s 2008 analysis, between 2000 and 2006, the amount of energy used to store and handle data doubled, and without efforts to curb demand, current projections show worldwide carbon emissions from data centers will quadruple by 2020.

We will not argue that running previously desktop applications on remote and consolidated server farms leads to numerous sustainability benefits.

  • At the macro-economic level, cloud computing helps achieve economies of scale by centralizing compute power and democratizing access.
  • At the CIO level, cloud computing helps shift the mindset to commoditize computing power, not servers, and therefore drive efficiencies via virtualization and greater utilization rates which allows systems to scale up or down due to load fluctuations.
  • At the data center level, cloud computing’s drive towards consolidation paves the way for new standards for energy efficiency.
  • At the R&D level, cloud computing creates incentives for software engineers to code more efficient applications, as often their company will become the host for said applications.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, the focus was similar: economies of scale, security, reliability and cost reduction. Few considered what the transition would do to spur innovations that otherwise would never have occurred. It was only in hindsight that we recognized how “revolutionary” that transition was. However, as the SMART2020 report points out, focusing only on the above benefits to IT’s environmental footprint misses the bigger opportunities for low carbon breakthroughs in other sectors.

So we would like to expand the conversation to think bigger and more imaginatively: A transition to cloud computing enables a level of informed decision-making that was never possible in the past.

Cloud computing could be the tool that unlocks one of the main drivers of unsustainable practices: poorly informed decision-making.

If designers, architects, engineers, general contractors, energy auditors, land use planners and policy makers are able to access services that use vast sets of dynamic, complex and otherwise un-integrated data on the cloud for pennies a minute, think of the massive impact this could have on buildings, infrastructure, land use and urban design and policy-making.

The table below outlines a couple emergent business needs related to sustainability, the sustainability design technique that would help address those needs, and the cloud-enabled functionality that promotes those techniques.


To see the true sustainable design benefits of cloud computing, we’d advocate for a more expansive definition of the cloud than has been the case thus far. The technologies below are typically associated with the cloud, but speculative computing and predictive computing are potentially even more powerful tools in the cloud-based designer’s toolbox.  These allow the user to ask “what if” or “which one” about considerations that will directly determine the life-time environmental footprint of their design.

cloud2Offering a cloud-based service has three major benefits:

  1. Analyses can be performed by architects, building designers, energy auditor, and others directly over the Internet from within their own work environment and in real-time. This allows them to collaborate virtually with others, including general contractors, mechanical engineers and clients, thereby streamlining their work process and identifying opportunities earlier in their work flow.
  2. Complex and dynamic sets of data can be incorporated into the design. For a building, current desktop tools provide Typical Meteorological Year (TMY2) weather data from airport weather stations. But as the climate changes, and as architects, building designers, renovators, and owners become more and more ambitious about the energy performance of their buildings, location-specific data is increasingly important. A cloud-based program can provide millions of data points from virtual weather stations within five miles of the site in question.
  3. Speculative computing allows the user to ask the computer for the opportunities to save energy, water, and carbon emissions for a given set of parameters. The power of the cloud allows for thousands of iterations per second.

Together, the cloud-enabled features of such a product can allow designers to make smarter decisions based upon higher quality and richer data. It can also accelerate the workflow process, meaning that these smarter designs come to market faster.

So, to sum it all up, the potential environmental benefits of smarter design enabled by a transition to cloud-computing far outweigh the efficiencies associated with consolidating servers. In other words, the sky’s the limit.

Emma Stewart is the Senior Program Lead at Autodesk’s Sustainability Initiative. John F. Kennedy is the firm’s Senior Manager of AEC Sustainable Analysis Products.

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