The Cloud Is Only As Green As The People Using It

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Cloud computing is often offered up as the new solution for IT energy consumption. By putting everything in the cloud, we can minimize carbon emission, right?

In a report last year from Pike Research, cloud computing could be responsible for cutting GHGs by as much as 38%, and a more recent report from Carbon Disclosure Project in London noted that companies could cut their carbon footprint in half by moving their IT systems to shared networks. Greenpeace noted earlier in the year that cloud computing could help cut coal emissions, but that is if the data centers that support the cloud are using renewable energy sources.

There's an if that really matters. And it's not the only if.

Yes, cloud computing can offer up major carbon emissions savings. But that's dependent on how it is used.

As Mike pointed out when he questioned the greenness of Apple's iCloud, "Cloud computing is now at the stage that mobile computing was in 2007; we're only going to hear more about it, and it's going to permeate our lives. But from an environmental point of view, it shouldn't be a black box. We need to know what its impact is, and what is being done to minimize it as much as possible."

An article from Txchnologist underscores this, noting that just moving data to the cloud alone won't necessarily green up the IT industry or the carbon footprint of the IT department of companies. It also depends on how we use the cloud.

"Kerry Hinton, an electrical engineer at the University of Melbourne, and a member of ARC Services Research Network, says that calculating efficiency is extremely complicated, and most people forget a key part of the equation," states the article. "It’s not a simple matter of adding up the load in a private network and transferring it to a consolidated data center. Once a company moves all of that information offsite, its employees have to go through the Internet every time they need access, and those operations consume energy too. The data may be traveling on superhighways, but it has further to go."

And so, how we access the cloud -- the efficiency of the tools we use as well as the way the information is stored and retrieved -- is a major part of cloud computing and we have to be very aware of the energy resources put into utilization.

Consider how much more power goes into connecting to the Internet when an employee updates a spreadsheet using software from the cloud rather than a desktop program. Every time the page refreshes or the document gets saved, the employee may be communicating with multiple data centers around the world, hopping across an average of 12-14 routers, according to Hinton.

Hinton argues that routers are actually the greediest units in the Internet, gobbling up 7-10 nanojoules of energy per bit (for some perspective: there are about 4 billion nanojoules in a calorie.) Those crumbs add up quickly. And when customers make the connection wirelessly — a much more energy intensive data connection — their energy expenditure skyrockets, making the transportation of data an even bigger part of the efficiency equation.

Cloud computing could potentially reduce power consumption, says Hinton, but not while providers ignore this issue.

The article is a great eye-opener for being aware that while the cloud offers some outstanding energy savings, it is not the silver-bullet solution to IT efficiency as it might seem on the surface. We have many more improvements to make -- both in how we access data and on what tools -- before the cloud can realize these carbon-cutting goals we're placing atop it. As Txchnologist states, "It seems that whether computing goes green depends less on the cloud than all of the people standing beneath it."

Tags: Computing | Electronics | Energy | Energy Efficiency