Skip to main content

Why the cloud is sustainability's silver lining

<p>Cloud computing and its data centers&#39; vast energy demands, which are spiraling upwards every year, could open opportunities for renewables.</p>

This article was originally published by Renewable Energy World is reprinted here with permission.

Cloud computing is getting a lot of buzz. The term describes data-processing operations that are outsourced to server farms, instead of being powered on-site. These range from websites and remotely hosted networks to digital storage space and individual documents.

Software delivered over the web looks very similar to software operating on a personal computer, and is accessible from any computer in the world. Consequently, some IT sector analysts are predicting the death of the personal computer while others believe it will simply become another device to access the online world. Increasingly, the engine of the IT sector is composed of large-scale data servers that are driving the cloud-computing revolution forward. With regard to energy, cloud computing should result in lower costs for users and fewer greenhouse gas emissions by streamlining information-crunching into single facilities on speedy machines.

Slashing Costs

The cloud certainly seems to offer significant cost savings. A recent study found that if companies adopt cloud computing, they can reduce the energy consumption of their IT departments and save money on energy bills.

Cloud computing can save large U.S. companies $12.3 billion on energy costs while cutting carbon emissions by 85.7 million tons annually by 2020, according to a report that tracks climate change information and was commissioned by the non-profit Carbon Disclosure Project, carried out by research firm Verdantix and sponsored by AT&T.

In 2010 Pike Research found that cloud computing could lead to a 38 percent reduction in worldwide data-center energy use by 2020, compared with the projected growth of data-centre energy consumption without cloud computing developments.

However, a few studies are a little less enthusiastic, including a recent University of Melbourne report that found cloud computing can save energy when it leads to the consolidation of servers. But the study further finds that energy efficiency savings are sometimes negated, particularly when companies are using cloud computing for storing data and the number of downloaded and accessed files is larger.

Emissions Savings

The impact of the cloud on CO2 emissions is also potentially huge. A 2010 study from Microsoft, Accenture and WSP Environment and Energy found that moving business applications to the cloud could cut the associated per-user carbon footprint by 30 percent for large, already-efficient companies and as much as 90 percent for the smallest and least efficient businesses. Backing up this take on the situation is another recent study showing that customers of fast-growing cloud computing giant Salesforce’s services produced 95 percent less carbon, on average, compared with running equivalent software in application servers located on the premises.

Image of server racks in the cloud courtesy of Novelo via Shutterstock.

The tech industry is convinced both that cloud computing is the future and that it’ll have a major positive impact on the environment.

‘With Salesforce’s multi-tenant model, organizations that value sustainability can give their users powerful enterprise apps without the high cost, complexity and CO2 emissions associated with on-premise systems or false clouds that still require companies to buy hardware and install software,’ said Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s chairman and CEO. ‘The Salesforce community saved an estimated 170,900 tons of carbon in 2010 -- the equivalent of taking 37,000 cars off the road, or avoiding the consumption of 19.5 million gallons of gas.’

Some of the reasons for such savings are obvious. With its on-demand model, cloud computing eliminates the need to keep data centres up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thereby reducing electricity consumption. This translates to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Energy Efficiency

While the debate over exactly how big an energy saving impact the cloud will have is ongoing, there is no doubt that investment in the cloud is growing fast with the big four — Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple — leading the way.

That said, the energy required to power data centres is enormous, and rising fast. In recent years, increased digital communication, record keeping and financial transactions have been pushing up demand for data processing and storage.

The U.S. government itself more than quadrupled the number of data centers it operated between 1998 and 2010, growing from 432 facilities to more than 2000. And environmental group Greenpeace estimates cloud computing worldwide demanded 662 terawatt hours of electricity in 2007, more than the power consumed by India or Germany.

As a result, there is a growing move to make data centers more efficient. In this respect the cloud has certain advantages over on-site servers as these must be equipped for peak data usage -- heavy hits on a retail website during a new product launch, for example. The rest of the time on that site, web traffic plateaus and the built-in capacity of the servers goes to waste. Open data centers, on the other hand, can redistribute that excess capacity to other clients, using already highly efficient servers.

Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard released its design of a modular data centre that it called the world’s most efficient. Google has made the same claim of its centers over the years. And Facebook recently launched the Open Compute Project, a collaborative effort to boost data centre efficiency.

Environmentally Friendly?

But while efficiency is improving, a recent Greenpeace report says this is overlooking a major variable: the energy source. Companies are relying on healthy efficiency ratings, the report says, to ‘communicate externally that their data centers are "green" and sustainable without accounting for the full environmental picture.’ Though internal efficiency is a worthy goal, the report says, energy savings are superficial if the data center is powered with a non-renewable source.

According to this report, titled How dirty is your data? A look at the energy choices that power cloud computing, the data centers that power cloud computing account for about 2 percent of global energy demand and are increasing their energy consumption at a rate of about 12 percent per year. What’s more damning, says Greenpeace, is that most of the energy consumed (50 percent to 80 percent) comes from coal and nuclear energy rather than renewable sources.

Greenpeace analyzed the cloud performance of 10 leading tech companies: Apple, Facebook, IBM, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo!, HP and Akamai. Of these, Apple scored the lowest while Akamai and Yahoo! were ranked as the most environment-friendly, or, rather, the least environment-damaging.

While the report was broadly critical of cloud computing, it did recognize some positives like Yahoo locating its facilities near clean energy hot spots and using coal-based power for just 18.3 percent of its portfolio, and Google encouraging wind and solar projects by creating the subsidiary Google Energy that can buy electricity directly from independent renewable power producers (IPPs).

Green campaigners have criticised Apple, Facebook and Google for establishing operations in North Carolina, a state fast becoming a prime location for data centers. Particularly in the western part of the state, the geography is inviting, the risk of natural disasters is low and telecommunications infrastructure is already in place. Similarly, environmentalists have attacked Facebook’s decision to set up a new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. They say the 151,000-square-foot building (which is planned to double in size) should have been in an area powered by clean energy. Instead, it will be powered by PacifiCorp, which depends mostly on coal and natural gas.

Facebook defends the site, which opened in April 2011, pointing to its robust efforts to minimise the center’s effects on the environment. Southern-central Oregon’s low-humidity climate allows the building to draw in outside air, process it through layered filters and use it to cool the space and machines. Facebook says the Prineville site uses 38 percent less energy than existing facilities.

The Cloud and Renewables

But companies shouldn’t have to sacrifice cost-effectiveness to factor energy sources into data-centre siting, says Greenpeace, noting that many of the companies involved have sufficient resources to locate their operations on more sustainable ground.

Indeed, the future does appear to offer certain synergies between the cloud and renewables. Renewable energy also has relatively constant costs, which can help fix the marginal cost of computation — an important metric. Moreover, demand shifting opportunities in data centres are significant. Some computation, such as data back-up, can be easily carried out at night and can be supplied to countries on the other side of the globe, widening the cloud’s potential.

Data centres also lose up to 96 percent of the energy coming into the building, losing efficiency in cooling the room, the servers, and keeping servers idle. Using the cloud can help in all these areas.

Several leading American tech companies have already made large investments in clean-sourced data centers. Yahoo has an operation in Washington state that draws from a power supply with renewables making up an estimated 88.5 percent.

All-renewable facilities are slowly sprouting up, too, although these are mainly located outside the U.S. Two fast-growing companies in Iceland, Green Earth Data and GreenQloud, for example, both claim to offer 100 percent renewable energy, powered by the country’s abundant geothermal and hydropower resources. GreenQloud founder Eirikur Hrafnsson says, outside of GreenQloud, there are no truly green cloud computing service providers. While the world’s data giants have worked to make their existing servers highly energy efficient, those servers are still powered mostly by coal or nuclear power. On average, less than 15 percent of their power comes from renewables.

‘The internet with cloud computing is becoming a big contributor to carbon emissions because of dirty energy usage,’ Hrafnsson says. With users increasingly demanding green services and cloud computing set to grow to a $150 billion market by 2013, he says GreenQloud is well positioned to become Europe’s green cloud computing leader.

A Greater Role

On the other side of the Atlantic, there are growing concerns that renewables will be required to play a greater role in the cloud. Further, some analysts believe that wind and solar power could be used to power a distributed network of data centres connected by fibre-optic cable that would bypass the transmission grid entirely.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) along with Clarkson University, semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices, IT giant Hewlett-Packard and other private businesses, have come together to develop more efficient ways in which renewable energy can be used to power cloud computing.

The research project has managed to attract a lot of interest from the private sector. Corporate partners include some established industry players such as GE Global Research Centre, Ioxus, AWS TruePower, Vento Tek, Timbre, Intertek, WindE Systems, and Ballard Power Systems. While wind power is initially the focus of the research, solar power may also be explored at a later date.

The theory is that since data on the cloud can be easily moved around, it makes sense to shift it where electricity supply is ideal -- or, in this case, where maximum wind power is being produced but consumption is less. Eventually, the researchers hope to design a network of renewable energy-driven Performance Optimized Data Centre (POD) systems located at sites with exposure to high winds.

Recently, companies have made decisions regarding data centre locations mainly dependent on the cost of infrastructure, specifically electricity. However, if this idea works, the windiest places in the US may well prove to be prime locations for siting cloud-data facilities.

More on this topic

More by This Author