Prove cloud is green: providers urged to publish energy figures

31 May 2011

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Major cloud computing providers’ inability to provide business leaders with real energy utilisation figures to prove that cloud computing is more efficient is only adding to people’s doubts about the technology movement, The Green Economy – 2nd Annual Business & Leadership Briefing in Dublin heard today.

Tom Raftery, principal analyst with RedMonk who heads up its GreenMonk environmental division and who co-founded the CiX green data centre in Cork, asked just what are cloud computing’s green credentials?

“Cloud has been around for a while – Google apps, Salesforce.com – Zoho, it’s pretty ubiquitous at this point. Amazon, HP and IBM are all producing cloud platforms.

“But is cloud energy efficient?” he asked the Green Economy conference.

Raftery pointed to a report by Microsoft, Accenture and WSP Environmental & Energy that claimed that businesses can gain significant energy reduction potential from cloud computing. “But you have to remember that report was also commissioned by Microsoft and the best it could say is it has ‘potential.’

Server usage

“One of the things you get from cloud computing is dynamic provisioning. For example, if you ran the Australian Open website – you will see big spikes each year but for the rest of the year no traffic to the website. If you were an IT manager, if you need to, instead of having servers lying idle you can have enough servers on a cloud platform and turn up resources and dial them back down again as traffic dies off.”

Raftery said that, on the average, server usage is 8pc. “That means there is terrific underutilisation occurring.”

He pointed out that data centres tend to “follow the moon” when it comes to maximising resources, and operate at peak efficiency during the night hours when other electricity users in the area aren’t using energy.

“Also, some businesses point to teleworking, which they say leads to saving energy, less commuting and less use of building stock. But if you ask me this is just a redeployment of resources.”

Asking of cloud computing can really be used by firms as a green badge of honour, Raftery said: “One of the huge issues we have is that none of the cloud providers are giving us the energy utilisation figures that allow us to say cloud computing is energy efficient.”

He pointed to Facebook’s new data centre, which the company openly publishes data on and pointed to its impressive PUE of 1.07. “But Facebook uses PacificCorp, which gets 63pc of its energy from burning coal."

Raftery pointed Microsoft’s Dublin data centre, which has a PUE of 1.25. “But it is based on the Irish grid, where 87.5pc of energy comes from fossil fuels.”

Question energy sources

Raftery said that if cloud computing providers really want to say cloud computing has green credentials, then they would need to look at where their energy comes from as much as factors like how they cool servers and equipment.

Raftery said he attended a recent Google European data centre summit in Zurich. “US$400m is how much google has invested in renewable energy.

“The company has invested in an Iowa wind farm with a 20-year purchase agreement, buying 100MW of energy from this farm for the next 20 years. This is more than what they need but it gives them a guaranteed energy price for the next 20 years.

“They can sell electricity on the open energy market and get green kudos. Google did the same thing in Oklahoma and has just invested in a wind transmission system for 350 miles offshore from the US and US$158m in a solar farm in the Mojave desert.”

While cloud computing offers unparallelled efficiencies, such as the ability to get computing power on demand, its increasing effectiveness will put more demands on more data centres and as a result more demand on power.

“Anyone with $10 can rent a 10-machine cluster with 1TB of storage for eight hours on an Amazon EC2 service.”

Potentially soaring levels of cloud computing has Raftery thinking of the Jevens Paradox: the more efficient you make something the more it is used.

“Is cloud computing energy efficient? Possibly. Is it green, I’m not certain,” Raftery concluded.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com