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The True Sustainability Potential of Cloud Computing: Smarter Design

To hear experts tell it, cloud computing is “the new dot-com,” the “biggest shift computing shift in two decades” or even technology era’s “Cambrian explosion.” But it’s also a way to address the enormous need for energy efficiency in computing.

The True Sustainability Potential of Cloud Computing: Smarter Design
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To hear experts tell it, cloud computing is “the new dot-com,” the “biggest shift computing shift in two decades” or even technology era’s “Cambrian explosion.” But it’s also a way to address the enormous need for energy efficiency in computing.

As IT demand has grown, so has its ecological footprint. Data centers are a major, growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2008 analysis, the amount of energy used to store and handle data doubled between 2000 and 2006, and projections show worldwide carbon emissions from data centers will quadruple by 2020 unless demand is curbed.

At the onset of the Industrial Revolution, there was a similar focus on efficiency — it was only in hindsight that we recognized how “revolutionary” that transition was. So let’s expand the conversation and think about how transitioning to cloud computing enables a level of informed decision-making never before possible. Moving desktop-based applications onto remote and consolidated server farms will lead to numerous sustainability benefits. Including:

  • Centralizing computer power and democratizing access achieves economies of scale.
  • Shifting mindsets to commoditize computing power, not servers, drives efficiencies via virtualization and greater utilization rates (allowing systems to scale up or down due to load fluctuations).
  • Driving toward consolidation paves the way for new energy efficiency standards.

If architects and designers are able to access services utilizing vast sets of dynamic, complex and otherwise un-integrated data on the cloud for pennies a minute, imagine how much ‘smarter’ their designs can become.

To realize this true potential, we need to expand the traditional definition of cloud to include speculative computing and predictive computing. These allow the user to ask “what if” or “which one” about considerations directly determining the lifetime environmental footprint of designs.

In other words, the user can ask the computer to optimize use of energy, water, and materials for a given set of design parameters and in a given locale. When combined with real-time analyses and complex, dynamic datasets speculative computing allows users to ask the computer for a solution, not just a result, on how to optimize resource use. The cloud-enabled features of design products to hold more information, with daily or hourly updates, allowing designers to make smarter decisions based upon higher quality, richer data. They can also accelerate workflows and identify conflicts early, meaning these smarter designs come to market faster and on-budget.

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So we if expand our view of the cloud beyond basic efficiency and economies of scale, we realize the true sustainability potential: smarter design. In other words, the sky’s the limit.

[Photo: Moo Cards by Justin Grimes]


Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is the Senior Program Lead of Autodesk’s Sustainability Initiative. In this role, she leads the design software company’s efforts to model sustainability best practices to its 9 million architect, engineer, manufacturing, and construction customers. In addition to driving the company’s climate strategy, her team seeks to spot, shape and adopt new best practices through alliances with government, NGOs, academia and corporate partners.

Emma is a regularly featured columnist for Harvard Business Online, Environmental Leader, and ClimateBiz and her work has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, Global Finance, among others.


Read more of Autodesk’s Sustainable Intelligence blogs.

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