Is the cloud green?

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is the cloud greenToday, the world is focused on green – from technology to transportation, the environment is on everyone’s minds.  You would think it’s self evident that the cloud is green. Common sense tells us that a shared service will be more economical and more ecological than everyone using their own separate, non-optimum infrastructures.  It’s like how it seems obvious that travelling by bus is better for the environment than travelling by car. However, statistics show that people who travel by bus burn more energy than people who travel by car because the buses often only have a few people on them and they’re big and heavy and use a lot of diesel.

It’s obvious that instead of everyone running their own old PC that is not properly maintained and only used infrequently, it’s better to share a server hosted by someone who knows how to look after it.  It would be a modern ecological server, probably based in Iceland or somewhere where keeping the system cool is not so difficult. It would be a shared elastic environment with everyone using partitions on the same system so they maximize the capacity and they can hibernate the environment when it’s not in use so as to not waste any power or wear out the disks.

However, the more capacity you give to people, the more they seem to use it. If you add an extra lane to a motorway it doesn’t ease congestion, it just gets used by more people.  You’d think that with the advent of new technology, such as cars, people’s journey time to work would reduce but actually commuting time now is roughly the same as it was 100 years ago, it’s just that people travel further. A kitchen bin is always full and you carry on trying to cram more into it. If you put another bin next to it they wouldn’t both be half full, you’d be trying to cram waste into the top of both. People increase their usage to use up capacity.

So if we give people access to more computing power through the cloud then they’ll use it. Individuals may be able to find a cure for cancer during their lunch break and make the world a better place but they’ll use a lot more carbon than they did before cloud.

A study by Accenture found that “cloud solutions can reduce energy use and carbon emissions by more than 30 percent when compared to their corresponding Microsoft business applications installed on-premise.”

Reuven Cohen, SVP of Virtustream said “I’m sure that if you were to compare a traditional data center deployment to a near exact replication in the cloud you’d find the cloud to be more efficient, but the problem is there currently is no way to justify this statement without some kind of data to support it.”

By moving your processing to the cloud, you’re moving it to a generally available resilient environment with multiple instances of power, network and cooling. How much energy is actually used by the network? In the UK the Environment Agency publishes a CRC (Carbon Reduction Committee) Energy Efficiency Scheme Performance League Table. In the 2011/2012 results BT Group (UK network provider formerly known as British Telecom) ranked third in terms of absolute carbon emissions, with two other network providers and seven data centres also appearing in the top 100.

The UK Government’s CloudStore includes the question of whether the data centre adheres to the EU Code of Conduct in each submission. It will be interesting to see whether this is used by customers as part of their search criteria and whether this results in an increase in data center tracking and reporting of their energy usage.

So, is the cloud green? The answer depends on definitions of the cloud and what is green. I think the cloud is green. I think that running a workload in a shared modern data center will use less carbon than running it in a traditional on-premise environment. However if the data center is not efficient or the infrastructure is not already in place; if an excessive amount of network is used, if you change the service level requirements or if you increase your usage then this could have negative ecological consequences, but in other ways the world will become a better place.

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