10 facts you didn’t know about the environmental impact of SaaS

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When we think about SaaS solutions, environmentalism is probably the last thing on our minds. We have business needs to meet, pain points to alleviate, and workflows to optimize. But, there are real environmental impacts that come along with the SaaS model of business. Let’s go over a few scary and not-so-scary facts related to the environmental impact of SaaS.

We want to clarify that SaaS is an absolutely necessary component of modern business architecture. And, we’re SaaS evangelists down to our atoms. But, we think it’s essential to think about environmentalism from both a business perspective and a broader one.

Let’s jump in!

The scary facts

Fact #1 SaaS Hardware is a CO2 Machine

Businesses rely heavily on power-consuming server farms that house data in warehouses across the globe. And, these data servers are anything but environmentally conscious. Between the physical hardware, massive cooling requirements, and the IT infrastructure necessary to support those servers (e.g., fiber, networking, etc.) data centers certainly have a carbon footprint.

“A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”

According to Peter Gross — a data center designer at the New York Times.

In fact, U.S. data centers alone require around 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year (that’s 40% of the entire yearly energy consumption of the U.K.).

In terms of carbon footprint, it represents 830 million tons of CO2 per year, that’s equivalent to the carbon emission of all global air travel.

Fact #2 Data Silos Create Digital Waste

Beyond the physical infrastructure, there’s another environmental issue stemming from SaaS apps — data silos. Let’s say that your customer data has to be housed in your SaaS app in a way that is specific to that SaaS app. APIs can help you integrate at some scale, but you’re inevitably going to be working from multiple data sources. And, when you’re storing similar (or the exact same!) customer data on multiple systems, the environmental concerns multiply.

It costs around 7 kWh per gigabyte of data that you store on a cloud server. When you have to store GBs of similar data in fractured environments (often due to vendor lock-in), the electricity costs add up. 83% of execs say that they have silos. 

This issue, which is presented mainly from widespread SaaS use, is an ongoing environmental concern.

Fact #3 Using SaaS Cloud Servers Wastes More Energy Than Storing Data On Your Physical Servers

You’ve probably heard that cloud servers “are greener” than physical servers. That’s often not the case, however. It takes around 0.000005 kWh to save 1GB of data on your on-site hard drive. Saving that same load of 1GB files to a cloud server takes 7 kWh. That’s a pretty big difference.

Fact #4 Every Google Search Creates CO2 Emissions

Google alone is responsible for 40% of the internet’s carbon footprint.

That’s not really surprising given that they dominate the internet. But, a single Google search creates anywhere from 1g to 7g of carbon emissions. Of course, the entire situation is a little more complicated than this. 

The internet saves trees, and Google searches create a unique ecosystem that may have to be supported in more environmentally demanding ways did it not exist.

But, it’s essential to be mindful that every action taken on the internet — including a search — produces carbon.

A quick note: You may have heard that a single Google search produces the same amount of carbon as boiling a pot of tea. This isn’t true. Check here for a more accurate answer.

Fact #5 Watching Videos on the Internet Creates More Emissions Than You Think

As videos continue to dominate internet traffic (80% of all traffic by 2020), it has an impact on our digital energy consumption.

 Watching an hour of video on your smartphone requires the same amount of electricity as running two full-size fridges for a week. And, most of that is one the data-center side.

Fact #6 Data Centers’ Carbon Footprint is Larger Than All Global Air Travel

Data centers are responsible for around 2% of global emissions, which is about the same as air travel. And, with the staggering growth rate of data centers, that number is only getting more significant.

Fact #7 Things Are Getting Worse

As SaaS companies continue to dominate the business space, data center usage is only growing. 

And, between the digital business gold rush and the constant increase in numbers on social platforms, experts warn that data centers could consume 3x as much electricity in the coming decade. 

That means that data centers would be contributing to 6% of ALL emissions. That would put data centers close to rivaling the agricultural industry in carbon output.

The not-so-scary facts

Fact #8 Facebook, Salesforce, and Apple Are Leading The Way in Reduced Emissions

It’s not all terrifying. Some companies are pushing for change. Facebook has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2020 (they’re already 75% of the way there.) 

Salesforce says they’re going to use 100% renewable energy by 2022. 

And, Apple (who already has 100% renewable energy) has reduced its carbon footprint by 34% since 2015.

Plenty of other companies are joining in as well. And, this shift in policy may be a critical driver for environmental success.

“If [data centers] are built in the right way, it could be a great story and help the transition [to renewable energy]. If they’re built in the wrong way, it’s going to take us in the other direction.”

said Gary Cook — senior IT analyst for Greenpeace

Fact #9 Cloud Computing and SaaS May End Up Helping in Saving the Planet

SaaS apps let us connect to our data across devices. They helps us analyze business models, drive conversions, and reduce overall workflow clutter. 

And, in doing so, they present an incredible opportunity for change. As SaaS brands continue to absorb market share, the opportunity for reduced emissions lurks in the corner. It only takes a few major data center providers to substantially change the carbon footprint of the internet.

As many brands continue to drive green solutions into their DNA, we may see a future where data center output is a fraction of what it is today. 

Sustainability is achievable in the industry. It’s just not here yet.

Fact #10 Choosing Green Solutions May Be Cheaper for Your Brand

Justifying picking one SaaS solution over another based on sustainability alone sounds far-fetched, right? 

Maybe not. 48% of customers say that they will change their purchasing habits to be more environmentally conscious. And, 90% of CEOs think that sustainability is a critical driver for success. 

As consumers continue to push for more sustainable solutions, this will entrench itself into the business space.

Spending more on sustainability makes sense if it’s a business necessity.

Final thoughts

The internet has a carbon footprint — and it’s a big one. Data centers that power our searches, social media likes, late night YouTube sessions, and business SaaS apps constitute 2% of all global emissions, and that number may rise. But, that doesn’t mean that the future is perfectly bleak. Companies are starting to make changes backed by consumer demands. And, the future of the internet could look brighter than ever.

Stéphane Cohen, founder of Rewhiz

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Brought to you by Gapps Experts, Rewhiz is the only free SaaS management platform that allows tech-savvy SMEs to control their SaaS carbon footprint. Stay tuned for our product updates!

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