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Cloud computing: is the cloud green?

On May 9, 2011, in Cloud Computing, Green computing, by Jorge Espinosa

So you are considering moving some of your information functions to the cloud in order to save money, increase scalability and build redundancy.  However, are you also being environmentally responsible?

study commissioned by Microsoft in 2010 estimated that companies could cut energy consumption and carbon emissions by 30 percent by switching over to the cloud.  This claim was based on four basic premises.  First, by provisioning resources to cloud customers as needed, dynamically, the cloud provides for less waste of computing resources.  Second, by serving large number of users on shared resources, loads are more evenly balanced and peaks in consumption are avoided.  Third, servers are used much closer to their capacity.  Finally, advanced data centers avoid the waste of many smaller, older in-house environments.

These results were supported by market research and consulting firm Pike Research which suggested in its own study that by 2020 cloud computing could reduce information systems related energy consumption by 38 percent.

However, everyone is not convinced by these predictions. Greenpeace, the well known environmental organization, updated its 2008 report “Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change” and issued a 2010 “Smart 2020” report which challenges some of these optimistic results.  According to Greenpeace’s research, data centers and telecommunications networks — which together are the two key components of cloud computing — are going to triple their overall consumption of energy by 2020, all because of the rise of cloud computing.  By increasing accessibility to portable devices such as smart-phones and tablets, demand for data storage and processing is will lead to more and larger data centers.  Moreover, on the cloud, we are able to run operations which use far more resources than we could ever draw upon just a few years ago.  These data centers generate huge demands for electricity in cooling and processing.

University of Melbourne professor, Rod Tucker, speaking at a green IT virtual conference also identified the transportation of data across the network as an additional source of cloud inefficiency.  Professor Tucker, who served as Director of the university’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES), conducted research into the energy efficiency of various cloud computing tasks and how they related to traditional, local computing processes.  He determined that the more often and numerous the exchange of data on the network the more energy efficient that local processing becomes by comparison since the transportation of the data along the network requires energy resources.

This is not to say that some data centers are not trying to find ways to be energy efficient.  Web hosting services Fat Cow and ThinkHost, amongst others, brag that their energy is derived 100% from wind generation or solar sources.  However, Greenpeace would contend that by driving demand and increasing network traffic, cloud providers actually outstrip their ability to compensate with energy efficiency.  So what can you do?  Unfortunately most IT decisions are going to be driven by the financial benefits that the cloud brings to corporate IT pocketbooks.  Growth in demand is unavoidable.  Future energy costs and legislation will have to work with public pressure to help induce efficiency and conservation on the cloud.