Shaping Cloud University Uses Cloud-Based Platform to Help Businesses Reduce Carbon Emissions

The Centre for Low Carbon Futures (CLCF) in the United Kingdom wanted a new software system to help enterprises cut carbon emissions. Shaping Cloud used the platform-as-a-service capabilities in Windows Azure to give businesses access to best practice case studies created by the research project. It underlines how Windows Azure can support fast, cost-effective delivery of complex academic research ideas and programmes, with calculations taking just seconds.

Business Needs

Manchester-based consulting firm Shaping Cloud helps its customers reduce IT costs by re-deploying their applications and server workloads to the cloud. It also develops applications that assist customers in streamlining business processes. Among its successful deployments is one for the CLCF, an organisation that focuses on sustainability for businesses. Founded by the universities of Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, and York, it brings together multidisciplinary and evidence-based research to inform policy making and demonstrate low-carbon innovations.

The CLCF began a two-year research project to develop a decision-support tool—the Supply Chain Environmental Analysis Tool (SCEnAT). Its aim is to show how technology can reshape the way organisations work, making them more environmentally sustainable. The project takes information from several disciplines, including sustainable and social science, engineering, economics, and technology.

The centre needed to make its research easily available to the widest audience possible through the web, and issued a request for proposal to design and build the system. This was won by Microsoft Partner Shaping Cloud.

The approach was especially relevant to the carbon emissions project headed by Prof. S.C. Lenny Koh, Director of the Centre for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability, University of Sheffield. For example, a company that produces beer could use the research tool to process the location of its barley and wheat, and then add in the details of each stage of the process to turn the raw materials into a beverage. With the data completed, SCEnAT—running on Windows Azure—would then compute the carbon footprint for each process stage, identifying hotspots, and direct the business towards case studies offering practical ways to reduce the brewery’s carbon emissions.

Solution

Using Windows Azure, Shaping Cloud has developed a beta version of SCEnAT, which is now ready for testing. It uses the data, inputted by the user, as well as external industry data sources, to run custom carbon calculation algorithms that highlight the carbon hotspots associated with supply chains. It will allow a business to map its existing supply chain with a user-friendly web-based interface. The administration interface is built-in to the tool, and users with administrative access can simply log on to create, edit, and delete content.

The tool makes suggestions to the user about how to reduce their carbon emissions and links them through to an extensive interventions database—a collection of research gathered by the university researchers comprising best practice case studies. It includes data and key performance indicators collected from organisations that have implemented these interventions. The information in the tool will grow over time as companies enter more data.

Windows Azure allows researchers to run carbon calculations faster by scaling up the number of worker processes to perform them. If this application ran on a single server, the calculations could take up to four minutes to complete—Windows Azure reduces this to between 10 and 20 seconds. Prof. Koh says: “We currently run two web roles with a dynamic scaling of worker roles dependent on load. The maximum we’ve required has been six worker roles when running one of our demonstration workshops.”

Carlos Oliveira, Founder, Shaping Cloud, says: “We’re excited to be working with the team at the University of Sheffield to develop the new tool. The costs of having this kind of compute capacity in a traditional server environment would have been beyond the CLCF budget. Once the product is complete and ready to be used by businesses, any future developments and additions will update automatically, so everyone using the software will always have the latest version.”

Benefits

Shaping Cloud has demonstrated the potential for broader adoption in universities and research institutes of the platform-as-a-service capabilities in Windows Azure. It delivers a scalable on-demand computing infrastructure without requiring any upfront capital expenditure, thereby helping the CLCF keep its costs down. The scalability of the cloud means the system can easily expand and develop as the researchers gather more data.

Helps businesses cut carbon emissions. Shaping Cloud has used Windows Azure to help the CLCF develop its tool. Prof. Koh says: “We’re pleased to be working with Shaping Cloud to develop what we hope will be a useful tool for businesses, helping them reduce their carbon footprints.”

Delivers scalable on-demand computing infrastructure. Windows Azure supports rapid prototyping of research ideas and projects, including complex process-intensive calculations, without requiring any capital expenditure. Oliveira says: “Windows Azure can free students and faculty staff to develop new initiatives—they know they won’t be constrained by the computing resources available to them.”

Gives global reach to SCEnAT. By using the Windows Azure infrastructure, users across the world receive the same performance from the tool. It’s scalable, so the service remains the same even when demand increases. Prof. Koh says: “Windows Azure has allowed us to build and market our tool without requiring capital expenditure. It’s a perfect fit due to the nature of research project funding.”

Supports sustainability in the workplace. Microsoft believes the Windows Azure technology used by the University of Sheffield has huge potential for businesses across the world. Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft, says: “Microsoft sees IT as an indispensable ingredient of any recipe designed to improve energy efficiency, while at the same time stressing the need for innovation.”

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