Google Wants You To Switch To The Cloud, But Is That Best?

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Urs Hoelzle, Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure, writes on the Google Blog, "At Google, we’re obsessed with building energy efficient data centers that enable cloud computing."

If you've been following any news about cloud computing, you'll know that it's the "next big thing" in IT and yet is, well, clouded in controversy. Will it really help save energy? Will data centers move quickly enough in improving energy efficient technology to keep up with skyrocketing demand? Is it even secure?

These are serious questions, but they aren't slowing Google down one bit in promoting the use of Google Apps for both personal and business use.

"Besides helping you be more productive, cloud-based services like Google Apps can reduce energy use, lower carbon emissions and save you money in the process," claims Hoelzle in the blog post.

After number crunching last year, Google found Gmail is up to 80 times more energy-efficient than traditional in-house email, and that a company can see an energy savings of 65-85% by shifting to Google Apps.

Those are some big number claims. But how the company frames these claims is important. In the document where Google explains the math behind their Gmail number, the company's first paragraph is:

It’s common to hear about new data centers being built, and it may seem as if the energy used by “the cloud” is a growing problem. However, services provided by the cloud can be remarkably efficient. In many cases, data centers hosting cloud services are more efficient than the in-house office servers they replace. These efficiency gains come from maximizing server utilization, using high-efficiency facilities and making power usage efficiency a priority for hardware and software developers.

It's absolutely true that some data centers hosting cloud services are more energy efficient than the in-house servers they replace. But that's the sticking point. The cloud itself isn't more energy efficient -- it's the data centers hosting the cloud that help it to make those energy efficiency claims. Sure, you could be more energy efficient by switching to the cloud, but not if you're already running a highly energy efficient data center yourself. It all depends.

That said, the potential for energy savings is significant. The blog post states:

In fact, according to a study by the Carbon Disclosure Project, by migrating to the cloud, companies with over $1 billion in revenues in the U.S. and Europe could achieve substantial reductions in energy costs and carbon emissions by 2020:

US companies could save $12.3 billion and up to 85.7 million metric tonnes of CO2
UK companies would save £1.2 billion and more than 9.2 million metric tonnes of CO2
French companies could save nearly €700 million and 1.2 million metric tonnes of CO2

The focus could equally be not necessarily on up and switching to the cloud, but ensuring energy efficiency in data centers by any business. There are a lot of factors that go into the overall IT footprint of a business, and switching to the cloud is not necessarily the number one path for improvement. This is in part why the Open Compute project is exciting. Opening up best practices, successes and failures in designing energy efficient data centers and bringing everyone in to the conversation could go a whole lot farther than simply everyone switching to cloud-based services.

Could cloud computing one day be a significant solution to an energy efficient IT industry? Absolutely. There is no question about that. But it won't happen without large scale data center energy efficiency getting the party started.

Tags: Computing | Energy Efficiency | Technology