How Green is Apple's iCloud?


Photo: Screen capture from Keynote stream
A Cloud of Magical Apple Unicorn Dust or Mercury-Laden Coal Ash?
When Apple officially announced its iCloud service yesterday - after months of speculation about what the company would do with its new massive data-centers - I eagerly waited for details on how green it was going to be, but Steve Jobs only mentioned that the data-centers were "as green as they could make them" and nothing else. I'm hoping that Apple will release more info on the eco-credentials of its new mammoth data-centers. Here's the questions I'd like to see answered...
Photo: Google Maps
1. Where is the electricity coming from?

That has to be number 1. While the building and equipment itself has an impact on the planet via the materials, embedded energy, and eventual disposal, a data-center is first and foremost a creature that is very hungry for energy. We're talking many megawatts... So it truly matters where the electricity is coming from. Is it hydro power? Coal? Wind? Solar? Did Apple build any on-site production capability? Are they buying straight from the local grid or are they buying renewable energy credits?

2. What's the PUE, CUE, WUE, etc

A consortium of companies and NGOs called The Green Grid has created many standardized ways to measure the power usage effectiveness (PUE), carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) and water usage effectiveness (WUE), and there are other standards out there. Apple should release its numbers to show just how green its data centers are in a way that we can compare apples with apples (sorry, bad pun) and see if it really is taking a leadership position or if its new baby is nothing special.

This would have a double-benefit: If Apple really has taken the lead, it'll put pressure on others like Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc, to step up their game and improve. Nothing like healthy competition to spur progress. But if Apple isn't doing anything special with its new cloud infrastructure, it'll allow green-conscious people to make a more informed decision about which cloud service (if any) they want to use, because similar offerings from other companies are no doubt coming.

3. Is there any data-center innovation that Apple could share?

Apple is notoriously secretive, but they've borrowed a lot of things from other companies, and they also contribute many "open" projects to help other (such as open-source software), so it's not too far-fetched to ask if there's any big technical innovation that they couldn't share for the greater good. Have they figured out a new more effective way to cool servers (some new form of liquid cooling maybe)? A better power supply? A certain floor layout that works well? A better way to manage virtualized servers? Anything that could be leveraged by others to help the industry be greener would be a great contribution.

Conclusion: We Want to Know
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. I hope that Apple will release more info about its iCloud infrastructure and that they're doing all they can to make it something else than a brown coal-smoke cloud.

See also: Steve Jobs Unveils New 'Mothership' Apple HQ
More on Data-Centers and Cloud Computing
95% Data-Center Cooling Energy Reduction Thanks to Fluid-Submerged Servers
Cloud Computing Creates Exponential Progress Towards Sustainability
Report: Cloud Computing GHG Emissions To Triple by 2020, iPad and Similar Devices Are Big Culprits
Cloud Computing Companies Can Curb Carbon By Cutting Coal, Says Greenpeace Report

Tags: Energy Efficiency