Amazon Web Services (AWS) was launched in 2006 offering cloud computing services that provide customers with on-demand access to computing resources that can be expanded as needed. Cloud computing providers maintain data centers with server space that can be purchased by customers on a “pay as you go” model.
AWS is the uncontested leader in the public cloud market – the company currently has both double the market share and double the revenue of its next three largest competitors combined . With such a remarkable lead in a rapidly expanding market, it is difficult to imagine any of the other major players (i.e. Microsoft, Google, IBM, or Oracle) catching up anytime soon.
To support their cloud infrastructure, AWS operates upwards of 38 data centers around the world . Data centers use an incredible amount of electricity; in 2014, US based data centers consumed over 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. This represents about 2% of the US’s total energy use and constitutes enough energy to power 6.4 million American homes . Looking beyond 2016, demand for data centers and their subsequent energy use will continue to rise as we become more dependent on big data, video streaming, and other data intensive applications.
As climate change is increasingly recognized in the global community, reducing energy demand is a promising avenue for lessening greenhouse gas emissions. Some regions in the US have already implemented regulations that force data centers to drastically reconsider their efficiency policies. For example, in early 2013, California passed a law that made energy more expensive to data center operators and thus incentivized data centers to make energy-efficiency improvements.
Beyond formal regulations, there are significant cost incentives for data centers to improve their efficiency, and many data centers have already taken great strides in this area. AWS operates with a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of less than 1.2, which is notably efficient. The Uptime Institute issues an annual report each year on data center efficiency and found the average PUE for data centers to be around 1.7, however many large-scale providers run significantly more efficiently, even at a PUE of 1.07.
There are many ways for data centers to increase their efficiency. Companies can choose more energy efficient processors and can intelligently design their cooling and air flow systems to prevent having to air condition or heat their facilities. Software can be used to increase the efficiency of older servers by pushing through more data and virtualization technology can be used to run multiple virtual servers on a single physical server, resulting in drastic increases in utilization and reducing the need for more hardware. One of the best ways to increase data center efficiency is to use software to identify servers that aren’t operating at full utilization but are still using power (possibly due to the business unit no longer using the server). In one survey, data center operators reported that when investigated they found that between 5% and 25% of servers were not being used. The Green Grid (a non-profit consortium dedicated to improving the efficiencies of data centers) concluded that identifying unused servers could account for the cost of an entire new data center.
In addition to the above improvements, Amazon is also focused on moving away from fossil fuels when it comes to powering their data centers. Amazon has pledged to reach 40% renewable energy by the end of 2016 and 50% renewable energy by the end of 2017. Amazon’s long-term commitment is to hit 100% renewable energy by integrating wind and solar farms across the world. Current projects include building 100 megawatt and 189 megawatt wind farms in Ohio, a 208 megawatt wind farm in North Carolina, a 80 megawatt solar farm in Virginia, and a 150 megawatt wind farm in Indiana.
Data resources will continue to be instrumental in the coming years as we increase our reliance on distributed cloud storage. AWS and other cloud storage companies have many opportunities to simultaneously reduce cost and GHG emissions. An interesting corollary can be drawn between data centers and the light bulb – electric companies worried that as light bulbs became more efficient, it would drive them out of business. Instead the demand for lights quadrupled  – as we get more efficient, we often see a greater demand.
Demand for centralized data storage will no doubt increase in the future. We must be cognizant as consumers of the services – if we want greater efficiency we must go to the companies focused on sustainability to signal it is important to us. Without the directive from customers, companies will only become more efficient as required by regulation or to the extent that it saves them money.
 Conner Forrest, “Amazon doubles its public cloud lead, can anyone catch up?,” TechRepublic, November 3, 2016, http://www.techrepublic.com/article/amazon-doubles-its-public-cloud-lead-can-anyone-catch-up/, accessed November 2016
 Amazon Web Services, “AWS Global Infrastructure,” https://aws.amazon.com/about-aws/global-infrastructure/, accessed November 2016
 Yevgeniy Sverdlik, “Here’s How Much Energy All US Data Centers Consume,” Data Center Knowledge, June 27, 2016, http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2016/06/27/heres-how-much-energy-all-us-data-centers-consume/, accessed November 2016
 Robert J. Mullins, “New global warming rules put the heat on data centers,” Network World, August 26, 2013, http://www.networkworld.com/article/2169283/data-center/new-global-warming-rules-put-the-heat-on-data-centers.html, accessed November 2016
 PUE is the ratio of the total facility energy to IT equipment energy. A lower number represents a more efficient data center.
 Yevgeniy Sverdlik, “Survey: Industry Average Data Center PUE Stays Nearly Flat Over Four Years,” Data Center Knowledge, June 2, 2014, http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2014/06/02/survey-industry-average-data-center-pue-stays-nearly-flat-four-years/, accessed November 2016
 Amazon Web Services, “AWS & Sustainability,” https://aws.amazon.com/about-aws/sustainability/, accessed November 2016
 Jason Verge, “Microsoft: Centralization is Driving Energy Efficiency,” Data Center Knowledge, April 30, 2013, http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2013/04/30/microsoft-centralization-is-driving-the-frontiers-of-energy-efficiency/, accessed November 2016
 Jeff Clark, “Who’s Responsible for Data Center Energy Efficiency?,” Data Center Journal, April 16, 2015, http://www.datacenterjournal.com/whos-responsible-data-center-energy-efficiency/, accessed November 2016