Pinning the Cloud: Pinterest, Cloud Computing and the Environment

pinterestPinterest/Screen capture

Pinterest, the online picture pinboard for organizing and sharing all of your favorite things on the web, is currently the fastest growing social media platform out there. It went from launch to 17 million unique visitors in an amazing nine months -- almost half the time it took Facebook to do the same thing. That rapid growth meant a huge increase in the amount of pictures and videos being "pinned" by users and that data had to be hosted somewhere.

Pinterest recently revealed that all of their data storage growth has been done exclusively in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. Speaking at the New York AWS Summit, Ryan Park, operations and infrastructure leader of Pinterest said, "Imagine if we were running our own data center, and we had to go through a process of capacity planning, and ordering hardware, and racking that hardware, and so on. It just would not have been possible to scale fast enough – especially with such a small team. Until about a month ago, I was the only operations engineer at the whole company."

A New Way of Doing Business

IT companies growing entirely through the cloud will start becoming more common as the sector transitions more and more to cloud-based operations, but what is the environmental footprint of this? Pinterest may not have ordered and racked its own servers, but there are still servers out there hosting its data and those servers require electricity for running, water for cooling and that has an impact.

The U.K.'s The Register reports:

"The Pinterest pinboard uses Amazon's S3 object storage to keep the photos and videos that its millions of users have uploaded. Between August last year and February this year, Pinterest has grown its capacity on S3 by a factor of 10, and server capacity on the EC2 compute cloud is up by nearly a factor of three, according to Park, from about 75,000 instance-hours to around 220,000."

As Pinterest and other IT companies using AWS grow, so will the amount of servers at Amazon's data centers. According to Wired, Amazon's cloud services are growing at a rate of about 30 percent a year and play a role in one percent of all internet traffic. Because of that, Amazon is planning some major data center expansions around the world.

The Good and the Bad of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing can be more energy efficient than each large business running its own data center, but as the cloud expands, it requires more servers and data centers too. A study by Pike Research in 2010 reported that cloud computing could cut global data center energy use by 38 percent by 2020, but in the same year Greenpeace released a report saying that cloud computing carbon emissions could triple by 2020.

Eventually, cloud computing could replace the standard data center set up, but right now companies are running both their own data centers plus hosting things in the cloud, meaning growing the cloud is a net gain in energy use by IT companies, regardless of how efficient that energy use is. If we come to a point where consolidated, cloud computing makes up the majority of data storage and companies are able to start shutting down old data centers, then we could see some real energy savings and reduction in carbon emissions.

But there's a bigger issue at hand. No matter how efficient cloud computing is, if those "efficient" data centers are powered by coal, it's still bad for the environment.

Renewable Energy is Key

Cloud computing can be a force for good in the IT sector, but it has to be powered by renewables, otherwise there's no real improvement being made. Greenpeace may have questionable tactics, but its goal to push IT companies toward using more renewable energy is completely right. Our use of cloud-based services through our smart phones, tablets, social media -- you name it -- is only getting started and as the demand grows, so will the data centers that make it all possible. Those data centers have to start pulling more power from renewable sources or we're just digging a deeper hole. Luckily, some companies are catching on.

Apple is installing the largest end-user-owned solar array and the largest private fuel cell project at it's Maiden, NC cloud data center that are expected to provide 60 percent of their energy needs. Apple also has plans for a completely renewable energy-powered data center in Oregon. Google is consistently coming up with novel ways to cut energy demand and cool its data centers more efficiently and Facebook has finally joined the club with its Swedish data center that will be completely cooled by the Arctic air and powered by hydro-electric sources.

Unfortunately for Pinterest, Amazon is regularly on the "dirty" list for data centers, with most of its power still coming from coal plants. So, if Pinterest ever wants to become a sustainable company and not just a popular one, it will have to address the issue of what powers all those pins.

Pinning the Cloud: Pinterest, Cloud Computing and the Environment
Pinterest is quickly growing and using cloud servers to host all of those new pins, but what is the real footprint of this and what could make it better?

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