Is the cloud green?

19 May 2011

As the debate heats up as to the green credentials of cloud computing, GreenMonk’s principal analyst Tom Raftery says the jury is still out. ANN O’DEA reports.

Until cloud providers start to publish their energy utilisation numbers, it is difficult to assess just how green cloud computing is, says Tom Raftery, principal analyst for GreenMonk, the energy and sustainability practice of open-source industry analyst firm RedMonk, and co-founder and director of Cork Internet eXchange – a hyper energy-efficient data centre in Cork. Today based in Seville, at GreenMonk Raftery works with some of the biggest companies in the tech world, helping them to understand how the world is changing and how they should respond.

As cloud computing continues to be all the rage, those in the area of sustainability are debating its green credentials. A recent study – Cloud Computing and Sustainability: The Environmental Benefits of Moving to the Cloud – found that companies running applications in the cloud could reduce their carbon emissions by 30pc or more compared with running those same applications in their own infrastructures. The study was commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy, an environmental consulting group.

However, when it comes to cloud computing’s green credentials, Raftery says this is far from a simple debate. The shared resources argument is a strong one when it comes to SMEs, he says. “If you think in terms of your typical SME, maybe 50 or 100 employees, they may go out and buy their database server, their email server and possibly a telephony server, or they can start using shared resources on the internet using cloud computing.

“Using a supplier’s infrastructure and sharing that with thousands or tens of thousands of other people, right away they’ve saved themselves buying the servers, and the power required to run it – because today the energy costs over the lifetime of the servers is starting to far exceed the initial cost of the server. If you can get away from that, if you can move from actually buying physical servers and renting space on someone else’s shared servers, it’s obviously a financial win.

“In terms of is it a sustainability win, that’s a whole other issue, that’s a lot more complex and a lot more difficult to answer,” says Raftery. “The issues around measuring the emissions from servers is quite straightforward when it’s your own server in your own comms closet, but when that server is outsourced and run in someone’s data centre, you have a much trickier time finding out what the emissions are.

“Until and unless regulations are put in place requiring your suppliers to publish that information, it’s going to be very hard to find out and, without knowing that, it’s very difficult to say how much of a sustainability argument there is to move to cloud.

“Sure, you’re not emitting as much now, but somebody else is because the same service is being provided. It might be done more efficiently, or it might be done in a data centre which is powered by, for example, coal.”

It is this challenge that some of the big tech companies are conscious of and are tackling, but it is not straightforward.

“Facebook has done a really interesting job on building its first purpose-built data centre in Prineville, Oregon,” says Raftery. “It’s open-sourced it, which is fantastic, and it’s made it massively efficient. If memory serves, it’s got a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.07, which is extremely low – 1.0 is perfect and is pretty much unachievable. Typical data centres come in between 1.5 and 2.0 and this one is 1.07 so it’s incredibly efficient.”

From diamonds to coal

So far so sustainable, but it has one problem. “The difficulty with the Prineville Facebook data centre is that it is powered by a company called Pacific Power, a local utility whose supply mix is over 60pc coal.

“So you see the issue. You’ve got other data centres like Microsoft’s one in Dublin and the new HP Wynyard data centre in Scotland, which are also incredibly efficient. And then you have companies like Google who are going that extra mile.

“What Google has done is fascinating. It has set up a separate company called Google Energy. People were scratching their heads when Google did this, first wondering what the hell was going on,” says Raftery. “They (Google) approached the FERC (Federal Energy Regulation Commission) in the US and asked to get a licence for Google Energy to trade energy on the wholesale market. This really confounded people who wondered was Google going to get into selling retail electricity. It turns out no.

“What Google has done is it has signed power purchase agreements with renewable energy companies, specifically with wind farms, for 15 and 20 years, where it has guaranteed to buy the output of the wind farms. So, Google is getting its energy from these wind farms at a set price and it now knows what its energy cost is going to be for the next 15 to 20 years.

“Not alone does Google know what it’s going to be, which very few people do, but it knows it’s going to be coming from wind farms so it knows it’s 100pc renewable,” he continues. What is more, the amount of energy Google has negotiated is far in excess of what it currently requires.

“That is why it set up Google Energy – Google gives the excess energy to Google Energy, which sells it on the wholesale market. And because it’s coming from wind farms, it gets renewable energy certificates for so doing.”

“So, it’s a beautiful idea,” says Raftery. “Now, I’m not saying every company in the world should go out and do this but, you know, it’s that going the extra mile, which speaks volumes for Google.

“Plus it gives the wind farms guaranteed income for the next 15–20 years so they have no problem getting investments to build them out, as some of these power purchase agreements have been done in advance of the wind farms actually being built.”

So, in Raftery’s view can cloud computing be green? “Logic would lead you to think that cloud computing leads to more efficiently run computers, so therefore it has to be green, right?” he says. “However, I’m hugely disappointed in the cloud providers as they are still not publishing their energy utilisation information,” he says.

“I’m not surprised because I know that they consider it proprietary and competitive information, but unless we can see the watts-per-compute cycle we can’t say whether or not cloud computing is green. If you can’t measure it, you can’t know for sure.”

  • Tom Raftery will address the second annual Business & Leadership Green Economy briefing from 8am on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 at the Four Seasons Hotel, Dublin. Visit the event’s website or contact Niamh Carwood for more information.

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Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human