Microsoft Study Claims Carbon Efficiency in Cloud (1)

By Paul Shukovsky and Sam Skolnik

Microsoft Corp.'s cloud-computing has large energy and carbon advantages compared with on-premises data centers, the company said in a May 17 study.

The study cites energy efficiency gains ranging from 22 percent to 93 percent when the Microsoft Cloud is compared to various scenarios where servers are deployed on premises.

The report highlights the company’s program to purchase electricity from sources such as wind and hydro. “When also accounting for our purchases of zero-carbon electricity, emissions savings with the Microsoft Cloud can be as great as 98 percent,” it says.

The release of “The Carbon Benefits of Cloud Computing: A study on the Microsoft Cloud” was timed to coincide with a presentation by Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit in Seattle.

During a break in the summit, Elizabeth Willmott, an environmental sustainability program manager at Microsoft, described the study for Bloomberg Environment as oriented toward convincing customers to migrate from in-house servers to Microsoft’s cloud by showcasing the lower energy and carbon footprint of the cloud.

Pentagon Cloud Pending

The study also may be well-timed to assist the Microsoft in its efforts to win the Defense Department’s upcoming Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud computing contract, known as JEDI.

The Defense Department is planning to issue a single contract, which could be worth as much as $10 billion over 10 years, though the agency has expressed openness to the idea that other companies could participate through partnership arrangements.

Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure Government are considered favorites in the JEDI competition, analysts, including Bloomberg Intelligence, have concluded. The Pentagon has said it will issue its final request for proposal later in May.

It’s unclear to what degree the Microsoft report on its cloud’s energy efficiency will help its chances to win JEDI, though it’s difficult to see how it could hurt the company.

There doesn’t appear to be any language in the Pentagon’s second draft request for proposal about sustainability or carbon footprints.

Still, over the last several years the Defense Department has been proactive about planning to try to mitigate the effects of climate change, including efforts to develop aviation biofuels.

Even as cloud efficiency improves, so does the amount of energy consumed in the cloud, the study reports. It cites a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report saying that in the U.S. data centers use about 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which is roughly 1.8 percent of the total electricity usage.

The figure is estimated to grow to 73 billion kilowatt-hours by 2020, or about what 6 million homes would consume in a year.

Smith said committing to sustainability is fundamental for an operator of data centers. “This is an issue on which we will stand,” Smith said, pointing to the company’s advocacy for the U.S. to remain in the Paris climate accords.

In Washington state, Microsoft this year backed a proposal to pass a carbon tax in the recent legislative session. The measure failed to gain traction.

Microsoft has also placed what amounts to an internal fee on carbon on its various units to advance the company’s sustainability efforts, Smith said. He described a recent $50 million investment funded by the carbon fee called AI for Earth.