Green Cloud Computing: Budding Possibility or Weedy Fiction?

May 8, 2012 Off By Hoofer
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Grazed from Midsize Insider.  Author: Doug Bonderud.

Green cloud computing seems a natural extension of the technology–what could be more efficient than moving big data centers out of thousands upon thousands of businesses and storing them in a central location? Instead of each midsize or enterprise business sucking up power for their own little island and then dumping their server stacks when they become too old, cloud offerings with provider-managed hardware mean much smaller carbon footprints. Right?

Maybe not, according to recent data gathered by Greenpeace, which takes a hard look at how big players like Microsoft, Google, and Apple are making names for themselves in the cloud; sure, their offerings may seem fluffy and white, but are they trailing dirty oil?…

Lean, Mean, Green?

An article at Tehelka discusses recent Greenpeace reports, which claim that Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, to name a few, aren’t really ambassadors of green cloud computing because their data centers, while consolidated, are fueled by "dirty" energy like coal or nuclear power. The report claims, for example, that 49.7 percent of HP’s energy comes from coal and 29.9 percent of Amazon’s comes from nuclear power, while companies like Dell and Yahoo get just over 20 percent of their energy from coal and less than 15 percent from nuclear power.

The problem with studies like the one conducted by Greenpeace is that there’s no standard method to calculate carbon emissions produced by cloud computing providers. This is no surprise: While it’s possible to exactly calculate the amount of carbon dioxide produced by vehicles, based on fuel consumption, the line between cloud computing and carbon emissions is not quite so direct. Nonetheless, the findings by Greenpeace do raise important questions. Sure, the cloud is efficient, but does that come at an environmental cost? If so, what exactly does that cost look like?

Green Apples?

In April, Apple responded to the Greenpeace survey, according to an article in The Guardian. The company claimed that Greenpeace had "wildly over-estimated" the amount of energy their new data center would draw, and that the company would eventually get 60 percent of its on-site power from renewable resources like solar power. Apple says the center in Maiden will use only 20 megawatts when active, a number that Gary Cook, author of the report, says is "a bit of a lowball number." Cook says, "[It] would be a very empty building they are putting there in terms of power demand if it’s only 20MW. That seems disproportionately small."

Twitter said that it would look into the report’s findings, while Microsoft refused to comment. Amazon stated the report was based on "inaccurate assumptions" and argued that even if the carbon footprint of a large data center was significant, it still meant a reduction in the overall amount of carbon emissions as private data centers were shut down after moving to the cloud.

What’s important for midsize business IT here aren’t the numbers behind supposedly green cloud computing, but how users perceive the cleanliness of a cloud provider. Even if all the data adds up, midsize IT needs to make sure their company is aligned with a provider that is perceived as being green. With increased scrutiny placed on the energy consumption and power waste in the technology industry, midsize businesses can’t afford to shut down their own data centers and jump on board with a provider viewed as having dirty, non-transparent energy practices. Although the carbon footprint numbers aren’t exact, aligning with a green provider now means fewer difficulties when it comes to public perception and evolving energy sources.