The Cloud is a Disruptive Force, but is it Green?

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While the financial and scalability advantages of the cloud are widely preached, there has been little buzz around the environmental impact of cloud. Some data center and cloud operators have attracted criticism for not doing enough to be environmentally friendly.  This mindset mistakenly twists the discussion about data centers and Cloud computing as unfavorable to the environment.  The proper discussion is deeper than that simplistic “Green” perspective.

Why do data centers consume so much power?

You may have heard of Moore’s law, which is an observation by Gordon Moore in 1965 that the exponential growth of transistor density in semiconductors.  Data density doubles approximately every 18 months.  As data density increases, the power drawn by data processing equipment also increases.

You’ve also heard of the “Information Explosion,” or “Information Big Bang.”  It’s been said that over the next 5 years humankind will generate more data than we generated in the previous 5,000 years.  Data is everywhere.  It’s being created by everyone with a smartphone, tablet, or PC.  It’s being created by our cars, our homes, our appliances.

All this data is going onto more and more data processing equipment, and all this data processing equipment is living in a data center. 

The data center draws power to feed this data processing equipment, and to provide adequate cooling, because the equipment needs a controlled temperature environment.

Cloud Computing, and Energy Efficiency

All data processing consumes energy.  Cloud providers operate an IT infrastructure that is very homogeneous in nature.  That is, the data processing platforms are very uniform, very highly utilized, and predictably scalable. This means that there is much less waste (power drawn by poorly utilized data processing equipment) in the cloud provider’s footprint, as compared to a typical Enterprise.

Cloud providers, because of their scale and uniform data processing footprint, have the ability to build, or choose, very energy efficient data centers.  It’s in their own interest to do so, not only out of interest in environmental sustainability, but also out of concern for optimized operating costs.

Some feel that “the Cloud” is not favorable to the environment, but we, as consumers, are demanding this kind of data processing service, and it has to happen “somewhere.” Cloud providers (and their selection of data centers) operate in a very efficient way compared to the traditional alternative to data processing or enterprises building their own data centers.  In that regard, consolidated data processing at this large economy of scale, is a net improvement of energy efficiency when compared to traditional services.

What are the implications of this for the environment?

The information explosion is driving a demand for ever increasing data processing capabilities, and data processing equipment is becoming increasingly dense, requiring more and more power and cooling capacity.

There are emerging regulatory measures to enforce steps toward energy efficiency improvement in data centers. Some data center providers (Interxion, for example) are proactively focused on energy efficiency and consumption of power from sustainable sources.  There are also industry groups which aim to improve the resource efficiency of information technology and data centers.  The Green Grid, for example, is exploring creative ways to extend the use of free cooling options, mechanical and electrical system optimization and energy efficiency metrics.

Because data centers are industrial-sized consumers of energy, data center providers are in a good position to support renewable energy sources. Data center providers buy renewable energy in large amounts and pioneer ways of re-using energy, such as thermal storage. There have also been breakthroughs in cooling techniques which are energy efficient.

Yes, the size and scale of the energy they are using is an easy target for activist groups, but in the long run data centers of cloud giants are likely more efficient than traditional computing technology operating in an enterprise data center. 

Given that we as consumers of electronic information are demanding more and more data processing services as a part of this Information Explosion that’s going on, building data centers, which are designed and incented to use energy efficiently, is an environmentally friendlier approach to meeting this demand, when compared to a traditional enterprise or computers on your desk.