Cloud Computing Is Efficient, But It's Not Green -- Yet

Everyone everywhere seems to be talking about cloud computing. Apparently 2010 is even being called the "year of the cloud."

We've talked about the green benefits of cloud computing before, of course -- both in the context of last year's Gartner Hype Cycle discussion of cloud's importance and how cloud computing can be an important emissions-reduction strategy.

But according to a report released today by Greenpeace, all this discussion of cloud computing misses the mark, especially when you're talking about green IT.

The new report, "Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change," updates and extends some of the research published in 2008 in the Smart 2020 report on how IT contributes to climate change, and finds that the Year of the Cloud is only going to make things worse.

"We are broadcasting the fact that the IT industry has a carbon problem," explained Greenpeace press officer Daniel Kessler in an interview about the report. "And they can't change it without changing it in [Washington] D.C."

What Kessler means is that, despite an increasing focus on power usage effectiveness (PUE), the measurement of choice for determining how efficient a data center actually is, and despite efforts to constantly make computing facilities more efficient, it's never going to make enough of a dent in greenhouse gas emissions without work on the policy front.

"This report shows that [IT leaders] can't grow responsibly without getting policy change, without getting a price on carbon," Kessler said.

According to Greenpeace's research, data centers and telecommunications networks -- which together are the two key components of cloud computing -- are going to triple their overall consumption of energy by 2020, all because of the rise of cloud computing.

By making data access omnipresent, whether through your smartphone, your iPad, your netbook, or however you get online, the IT industry is ramping up demand for data storage and processing, which means ever more and ever larger data centers.

In addition to shooting for low PUEs -- companies like Google and Microsoft are hitting PUEs of 1.1, and one data center designer achieved a PUE of 1.05 using currently available technology -- some companies are also looking to build their data centers in places to maximize energy efficiency and harness renewable or clean energy.

Hewlett-Packard, to use the most recent example, just raised the curtain on its wind-cooled data center in Wynyard, England, and last year the Green Grid offered a number of tools to help companies find the best spots for free data center cooling.

But that is still a tiny slice of the pie of both new and existing data centers, and the ones that are not using renewable energy or free cooling, are the biggest part of the problem.