Environmental sustainability has become a major new competitive battleground for cloud computing giants, Google, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services (AWS). All three companies are already committed to improved energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy within their international network of data centres – even if those goals have not yet fully realised. However, that commitment is now being extended to new areas, including helping customers with their own sustainability objectives. This will open-up a whole new competitive battleground between these leading cloud companies.

Demand for data centre resources continues to rise

Between them, Google, Microsoft and AWS account for around two-thirds of all cloud-based digital workloads. These include everything from digital applications and services to databases and enterprise software. They support these workloads via massive, globally distributed, data centres. These centres offer computing processing capabilities, as well as data storage and a wide range of other services. However, demand for data centre resources are on the rise – driven by the growing use of things such as high definition video, the Internet of Things (IoT), and big data. Therefore, AWS, Microsoft and Google are investing considerable resources in developing new data centres and expanding existing ones. As a result, all three are under mounting pressure to show that they take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

Data centres need to show environmental sustainability

Data centres are massive consumers of electricity – thought to currently account for 2% of total global consumption. This has potential to rise to 8% by 2030, according to some estimates. As the demand for data centre capacity and the energy it requires increases, AWS, Microsoft and other cloud providers are eager to show that the design, operations, and power consumption of their data centres are all environmentally sustainable.

The drive for renewable energy

Google, which claimed to have achieved 100% energy efficiency in 2017 – a figure that includes its cloud data centres – is currently investing US$3.3 billion in expanding its data centre footprint in Europe. Google emphasises that all of its new data centres will run entirely on renewable energy. Microsoft, which is building new data centres in Arizona, Qatar and Israel, expects all its cloud data centres to run on renewable energy sources by 2025. AWS currently lags behind Microsoft and Google in terms of data centre energy sustainability. Although AWS claimed to have achieved its 50% renewable energy target in 2018, this level includes renewable energy certificates (RECs), which AWS uses to offset its carbon emissions.

Helping customers reach environmental sustainability targets

AWS remains, by far, the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure and services. However, Microsoft and Google are intent on catching up with their larger rival. Environmental sustainability has become a major competitive priority for both. Microsoft for example is turning its attention to helping customers meet their own sustainability targets. Microsoft recently unveiled a new tool that is designed to help customers and partners succeed with their environmental sustainability targets, particularly in relation to carbon emissions.

Doing the calculations

The Microsoft Sustainability Calculator provides customers of Microsoft’s Azure cloud services business with insights into the carbon emissions associated with the digital content, data and applications they run on servers located in Microsoft Azure cloud data centres. This allows them to more effectively assess the environmental impact of their IT resources and make any necessary adjustments.

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Going forward, expect to see more initiatives like this. AWS, Microsoft, Google, and other large cloud companies will strive to win the confidence of customers, partners and governments. The intention is to show that they are committed to upholding environmental standards. The environment will be a key battleground in the sustainability wars to come.