Environmental Sustainability @ Microsoft: A Progress Report

Over the past few weeks we’ve posted several important public reports on our progress advancing environmental sustainability at Microsoft, including the Environmental Sustainability chapter in our just-released 2011 Citizenship Report and our 7th annual filing with the independent Carbon Disclosure Project. With that information as a foundation, I wanted to share a few thoughts on both the progress I’m proud we’re making and where we have more work to do.

For several years, we have championed the need for optimizing the energy-efficiency of information technology and this year, we released our most comprehensive guidance to date: “The IT Energy Efficiency Imperative” including guidelines for developers to design energy-smart applications. We’ve provided this framework for driving energy efficiency at every level of the IT environment to our wide partner and customer community, ranging from software developers and hardware manufacturers to Chief Information Officers.

We have also worked diligently on the transformational role of cloud computing. The cloud will allow us to rethink the role of IT and energy, so that we’re not just thinking about how to reduce the impact of IT, but also about how IT can reduce the impact of the other 98 percent of the energy consumed by buildings, transportation, industrial processes, etc. The cloud both creates great opportunities to increase the net energy efficiency of computing and to enable new environmental solutions, but the same technology also poses challenges for us at Microsoft as we seek to meet our ambitious carbon reduction goals at a time of rapid growth in our data center capacity.

The tremendous energy savings potential resulting from more efficient use of information technology is only part of the story, however. Even more significant are the savings across the economy that cloud computing can enable. For example, Microsoft has partnered with Ford and Toyota to offer cloud-based software programs that will manage when electric vehicle owners recharge their vehicles. This will help make electric vehicles more efficient to operate and reduce demands on the power grid that could require new power plants be built. We’ve also helped innovative small businesses like Wisconsin-based Orion Energy Systems Power use the cost savings and scalability of the cloud to develop innovative new energy saving services for their lighting customers. Microsoft and our ecosystem of partners are working to accelerate the development of energy-smart solutions, which we’ve detailed in a recent paper “The Central Role of Cloud Computing in Making Cities Energy-Smart.” We believe that the rich capabilities of the cloud enable more people and organizations to use energy and resources much more efficiently by providing new ways of getting, managing, and understanding valuable data, and automating conservation activities.

Part of the challenge we face comes from the increasing number of customers who’ve moved their IT services to Microsoft’s more efficient cloud. This has serious repercussions for Microsoft’s carbon footprint. While some of our data centers rely on renewable power sources—hydropower in Quincy and wind power in Dublin—the overall growth in our data center services has increased Microsoft’s electricity use and therefore our carbon emissions.

Understanding the global and local impact of cloud computing is a priority for Microsoft. In 2010, we commissioned one of the first studies of the relative energy impacts of cloud computing: a study by Accenture and the environmental consulting firm WSP that looked at the total energy and carbon savings resulting when organizations move common business applications such as Microsoft Exchange for email from their own servers to servers hosted in Microsoft’s data centers. The study found that large enterprises can expect to cut their energy and carbon emissions per user by at least 30 percent, and in the case of small businesses, the result is even more dramatic, with potential savings of up to 90 percent.

What accounts for these savings? A good analogy is mass transit, where moving thousands of people around on a shared infrastructure rather than single-occupancy vehicles results in significant energy savings and reduced environmental impact. The same is true in cloud computing. In many businesses today, applications often run on servers that are only using about 10 percent of their capacity, yet still draw a significant amount of power.. With huge economies of scale, cloud operators like Microsoft can optimize the processing of computing workloads and operate computer hardware in the most efficient manner. Microsoft’s recently opened state-of-the-art data centers in Quincy, Washington, and Dublin, Ireland that use 50 percent less energy than traditional data center designs.

We are continuing to drive efficiency measures in our data centers and across our operations. We are also creating a roadmap for our environmental commitments beyond 2012. We continue to work with customers, developers, partners and others to ensure that together we unlock the energy saving potential of cloud computing.

By Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist, Microsoft