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Microsoft is using AI to cut the cloud’s electric bill

Microsoft’s cloud is far more energy-efficient and carbon-efficient than traditional on-site data centers, according to a study commissioned by the company.

Microsoft is using AI to cut the cloud’s electric bill
[Photo: eberhard grossgasteiger]

Microsoft’s cloud services are 93% more energy efficient and up to 98% more carbon efficient than traditional enterprise data centers, the company said in a study it issued last month in partnership with the engineering firm WSP. That efficiency is in part thanks to hardware carefully managed by artificial intelligence.

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AI guides the computers that drive the company’s own data centers, helping decide which virtual server to use at any given point in order to complete a task, the company says. That allows it to process cloud tasks more efficiently than a traditional on-premises data center, simply because it’s only using the power it needs to get a job done, says Liz Willmott, carbon program lead at Microsoft.

Aside from the sheer energy demands of server and computing hardware, cloud storage centers come with hefty cooling costs. Microsoft says that its cloud facilities have been 100% carbon neutral since 2012, and the company has committed to using more renewable energy sources like wind, hydropower, and solar. But it’s also been touting the benefits of software and AI for further cutting electricity use.

Microsoft issued its first study about the environmental benefits of the cloud over traditional data centers in 2010. Back then, the results were a lot different: It found that businesses running applications in the cloud would help reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions by a net 30%, although a small business could see a high of savings close to 90%.

“Over the years, we’ve worked hard to make our data centers and cloud services as efficient as possible. That starts with designing our IT with efficiency in mind, including faster, more efficient chips that can do more using less energy, and open source development to share our designs and learn from others through the Open Compute Project,” said Christian Belady, Microsoft’s general manager of cloud infrastructure strategy and architecture, in a statement.

Additionally, Willmott says that the company has also focused on things like in-wrap fuel cells that pull energy from Microsoft’s own facility rather than from the grid. “I would say at the top level, it is really about more categories: operational efficiency, equipment efficiency, data center infrastructure efficiency, and reliable electricity.”

As part of its cloud business, Microsoft also funds sustainable development projects through the purchase of carbon credits and currently has renewable energy projects up and running in three continents, totaling 1.2 gigawatts of power. Recently it placed a small data center on the sea floor near the U.K.’s Orkney Islands as part of an experiment in energy efficiency.

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Microsoft’s cloud competitors have also launched sustainability programs. Amazon Web Services, the dominant cloud provider, has a number of solar and wind farms located across the country that it uses to power its data centers, but those farms in Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio provided just 40% of the power needed to run the data centers in 2016. Amazon announced a commitment to get that number to 50% by the end of 2017 and eventually to 100%, but has yet to make any official announcements on any advancements its made toward that goal. A company spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.


Related: The cloud is so 2017. Here comes “the fog”


The company also touts the relative energy efficiency of using its services over local data centers. In 2015, AWS’s chief evangelist Jeff Barr claimed, “On average, AWS customers use 77% fewer servers, 84% less power, and utilize a 28% cleaner power mix, for a total reduction in carbon emissions of 88% from using the AWS Cloud instead of operating their own data centers.”

When it comes to renewables and efficiency, Google, the third largest cloud provider in the market, has also made advances. The company says that, in addition to matching 100% of the energy it consumes with renewable energy, it has also used machine learning to reduce the amount of energy it uses to cool its data centers by 40%.

And we’re still in the early days. Cisco estimates that cloud traffic will represent 95% of total data center traffic by 2021, something that will make that energy efficiency for the cloud even more crucial going forward.

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About the author

Emily is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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