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The Green Cloud: Hype or Reality?

<p>Positioned at the top of Gartner's Hype Cycle, cloud computing is among the hottest trends in IT right now; but is it just another fad, or is the future of green computing practices?</p>

The cloud, as we all know, is the hot IT topic of the moment; in Gartner's latest Hype Cycle, published last month, Cloud Computing holds the dubious honor of being tied with e-book readers at the top of the "peak of inflated expectations."

From the press release announcing the latest Hype Cycle:

The “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” is the longest-running annual Hype Cycle, providing a cross-industry perspective on the technologies and trends that IT managers should consider in developing emerging-technology portfolios. This Hype Cycle features technologies that are the focus of attention in the IT industry because of particularly high levels of hype, or those that may not be broadly acknowledged but which Gartner believes have the potential for significant impact.

“Technologies at the Peak of Inflated Expectations during 2009 include cloud computing, e-books (such as from Amazon and Sony) and Internet TV (for example, Hulu), while social software and microblogging sites (such as Twitter) have tipped over the peak and will soon experience disillusionment among enterprise users,” said Jackie Fenn, vice president and Gartner Fellow.


Chart courtesy of Gartner.
Hype Cycle

But in the last week, I've happened upon a number of blog posts and news items talking about the most important (from my perspective, at least) element of the cloud: Is it green?

I raised this question, somewhat indirectly, in July from the standpoint of Microsoft's online-Office announcement:

Both Microsoft and Google have extremely efficient large-scale data centers; both companies are aiming for an industry-leading PUE of 1.12 in their computing centers. Expanding the use of these services means more incentive to concentrate IT operations in these top-of-the-line facilities, and will continue the shift that individuals are already undertaking toward netbooks -- cheap, web-centric laptops that forgo much of the established abilities of desktops and full-sized laptops for more portability and lower price.

We'll come back to my take on this topic, but first, the rundown. In a new article on NetworkWorld, Tom Jowitt looks at the findings of Rackspace's latest Green Survey, and finds plenty of skepticism:

over 21% of IT managers believe that cloud computing is a much greener alternative to traditional computing infrastructures, but it seems that the vast majority still remain to be convinced.

Thirty-five percent said they were not convinced on the green benefits of cloud computing, and 25 percent felt that there was too much hype around the green benefits of cloud computing. Meanwhile 19% felt that the true green benefits of cloud computing have not yet been realized.

Seven percent admitted that cloud computing was critical to their company becoming greener; 14% are currently evaluating cloud computing and its environmental benefits; 13% have considered the benefits of cloud computing as part of their overall environmental strategy; and 20% would be interested in learning more about the green benefits of cloud computing.

But a sizable portion (46%) said that cloud computing was not a part of their overall environmental strategy.
Graphic courtesy of Rackspace.
green cloud skeptics

While CIOs and IT managers as a whole are still uncertain about the green benefits of the cloud, big business -- and industry experts -- see the green lining. Exhibit A: a blog post from David Talbot at MIT's Technology Review, which kicks off thusly:

Cloud computing may raise privacy and security concerns, but this growing practice -- offloading computation and storage to remote data centers run by companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo -- could have one clear advantage: far better energy efficiency, thanks to custom data centers now rising across the country.

"There are issues with property rights and confidentiality that people are working out for mass migration of data to the cloud," says Jonathan Koomey, an energy-efficiency expert and a visiting professor at Yale University. "But in terms of raw economics, there is a strong argument," he adds. "The economic benefits of cloud computing are compelling."

Exhibits B-Y: our own regular coverage of green data centers, from ultra-efficient facilities to training courses for green data center management.

Finally, Exhibit Z is an article from last week looks at some numbers comparing Software as a Service (aka "SaaS" -- another term for cloud computing) to traditional in-house computing facilities. That article, from Chris Thorman, looks at a medical-office system for electronic medical records management and finds that a four-physician practice using one HP ProLiant server running 24/7/365 and accessed by four Dell 546 desktops will save 93 percent of its energy bill by switching to a SaaS system outsourced to 2 Dell PowerEdge 2950s and four netbooks to access the system.

As a caveat, Exhibit Z certainly doesn't make the case in and of itself; switching to netbooks from desktops may improve utilization for the one outsourced software application, but there are plenty of other uses of the system that makes this a less desirable solution; but it is a telling case in point.

{related_content} My argument in favor of cloud computing, at least in some situations, is the same as it was this summer: Consolidating computing into facilities that are designed for extreme efficiency just makes good sense, whether you're looking at the cloud from a green perspective -- which a company with a well developed environmental platform like Rackspace certainly is -- or from a cost-savings standpoint, which every company, Rackspace most definitely included, is also doing.

The results of the Rackspace Green Survey reveal more a lack of familiarity rather than a true skepticism about cloud computing; cost-conscious and trend-wary CIOs are certain to be skeptical about the new big thing coming down the pike. But as offerings for virtualized services expands, this resistance is almost certain to dwindle.

But, to the orignal question: Is it green? Again I would argue that cloud computing is certain to be greener than a multitude of in-house data centers.

The simple business imperative of maximizing profit and minimizing costs is sure to drive cloud providers toward the most efficient computing practices possible, and the side benefits of energy efficient computing in a world of carbon limits and climate legislation makes green IT a necessity from a compliance standpoint as much as an operations standpoint.

Watch this space; all signs suggest strongly that in the coming months and years, we'll see that every cloud has a green lining.

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