Microsoft and Google's Green Leaders on the Power of the Cloud

Microsoft and Google's Green Leaders on the Power of the Cloud

Everyone is talking about cloud computing; it's become the latest hype in IT circles. A smaller number of people are talking about the cloud's potential benefits to the environment, but most important of all just about everyone is using the cloud for a little or a lot of their computing needs.

Whether we're talking about webmail like Gmail or Hotmail or entire cloudsourced corporate infrastructures, Individuals and companies alike are getting more and more of their computing needs from remote systems.

Last week, I got the opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the greenness of cloud computing. First, I was invited to a dinner sponsored by Microsoft where myself and a half-dozen or so other reporters got to talk with Rob Bernard, Christian Belady and Jonathan Koomey about the cloud, data centers, and anything else in the world of green IT.

The next day, I attended an event put on by Climate One at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco that featured Bernard, who is Microsoft's Chief Environmental Strategist, and Google's Green Energy Czar, Bill Weihl, talking about Cloud Power.

Although both events covered a lot of turf, and although I didn't take particularly rigorous notes at dinner with the good folks from Microsoft, there was a fair amount of overlap over the course of the two days.

Green Benefits of the Cloud

Surprisingly, neither of these events were predominantly cloud-focused. I believe that is in large part due to two facts:

1) The shift toward cloud computing is well underway and to some extent inevitable; 2) Cloud computing is almost by definition green computing.

The first fact is pretty much self-explanatory, and the second is nearly self-evident.

Cloud computing is based on cramming as much compute power into one data center as possible; whether you're a company like Microsoft that provides cloud services to internal divisions (think Bing, Hotmail, Azure, etc.), or whether you're a service provider to a separate company, you are financially incentivized to get as many flops per watt as possible.

And as in any element of green business, when the economic benefits run parallel to environmental benefits, it's a sure-fire success.

Last year, Microsoft published a paper on the benefits companies can accrue from migrating to cloud services. The results, as Rob Bernard reiterated them last week, were pretty striking:

"For an enterprise company, moving things like Exchange or Outlook over to our services ended up in a net reduciton in energy of about 30 percent of energy, and a 30 percent reduction in carbon," Bernard said. "For a small business the number was even higher: 90 percent energy savings."

"It's mass efficiency," he added. "It's like mass transit versus taking an individual vehicle."

The Rippling Effects of the Cloud

While highly dense, outsourced computing has big impacts on the business bottom line, one of the biggest arguments for promoting green IT in general and cloud computing in particular has long been that it enables more efficient operations throughout society.

"The shift that we're in now is where IT is becoming ubiquitious in our economy," Weihl said, "that shift is enabling efficiencies throughout our economy that weren't possible before. We can make many parts of the economy much more efficient than they were before."

Weihl added a few minutes later that, even though the world's IT infrastructure will use comprehensively more energy in the coming years -- and in the process increasing its share of the global carbon footprint from its current 2 percent -- in the process it will make everything else more efficient.

"The airplanes we fly in today, for example," Weihl said, "they're much more efficient than the ones we flew in 20 years ago, and that's because of technology."

The efficiency of cloud computing goes hand in glove with efficiency in the data center. Bernard said during the Commonwealth Club panel, and his colleague Christian Belady said during dinner the night before, that the future of the data center is to have no data centers.

As provocative as that statement is, it follows on Bernard's presentation at our State of Green Busines Forum in San Francisco last month, where he showed this picture and dubbed it "The data center of the future."

data cente rof the future

What he means is that the huge physical structure of a data center -- all the concrete, all the HVAC and lighting -- all of that will go away in favor of lighter, less carbon-intensive and more flexible computing systems. The canopy-covered servers ran for the better part of a year without needing any maintenance, a fact that illustrates just how many changes can be put in place in the data center.

Belady, who was one of the creators of the now-ubiquitous PUE metric, has also been instrumental through his work with the Green Grid in shaping the future metrics of data center sustainability, notably Water Usage Effectiveness and Carbon Usage Effectiveness, WUE and CUE. Belady told me that, due in part to Microsoft's work on dematerializing the data center, they've almost eliminated the use of water in their facilities.

That's made possible in part by siting data centers where they can use outside air cooling, but also in the steady increase of acceptable temperatures in compute facilities.

"Historically, data centers have run cold," Bernard said. "The design principle now is, 'why can't you run a data center at 122 degrees?' You shouldn't be able to walk into the data center and be comfortable; you should be uncomfortable."

The current standard for optimal temperatures in data centers, via ASHRAE, is currently 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But Bernard is confident that data centers can run much hotter without frying the servers.

When (or if) data centers reach 122 degrees as an optimal temperature, Bernard said that you can basically site your facility anywhere in the world and run it 100 percent of the time without needing chillers. And that would go a long way toward making data centers more efficient.

Green Data Centers and Green Power

The final theme that I'll discuss from last week's events has to do with green power. A data center could be almost perfectly efficient, from a PUE standpoint, but if it is powered by coal it will still have a huge carbon footprint.

Google and Microsoft have both built enormous data centers in Washington state, where low-carbon hydropower is cheap and abundant. But I asked Bernard about Microsoft's future abilities to expand their data center portfolio while staying within their parameters of siting within 500 miles of a large number of users, and at the same time using the greenest power possible, Bernard said the problem was that "there simply aren't enough Quincys," referring to the Washington town where Microsoft's data center resides.

Both Microsoft and Google are investing in clean technologies, whether it's buying or building highly efficient servers or investing in green energy companies. But two big obstacles remain to making world-changing progress on green IT.

The first obstacle is the lack of national or international policy on greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency. Although the small number of companies that are leading the pack on these issues can have an impact, the vast majority of changes won't happen without a legislative requirement.

The second obstacle is a behavior change challenge. Although regulations will make that change possible to some extent, Weihl put it bluntly last week at the Commonwealth Club:

"Most energy efficiency work is a no-brainer. But people don't seem to have brains," Weihl said. "People don't do the work, they don't do the energy efficiency upgrades."

Weihl used data centers as an example of the problem that most organizations face. "The people who buy the computers, the people who design the buildings, and the people who pay for the electricity might all be different people. People who buy computers want to get the most computer for the buck as possible, so they buy the cheapest thing available. It may cost more to run, but that's someone else's problem."

Photo courtesy of Climate One.