Thursday, 1 April 2010

Greenpeace reports on the climate impact of cloud computing

Greenpeace - Greener Electronics Greenpeace has published a report called ‘Make IT Green - Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change’.  Basically, the 11-page report highlights the energy used by, and hence emissions from, data centres and how this will increase with the growth of cloud computing.

The report points out that cloud data centres are not making use of renewable energy.  According to Greenpeace, cloud-computing companies are focusing on reducing the energy consumption of their data centres mainly as a cost containment measure. The pure environmental benefits of green data design and location are generally of secondary concern.

Greenpeace cites Facebook’s decision to build its own (highly-efficient) data centre in Oregon, where it will be substantially powered by coal-fired electricity.  ‘Increasing the energy efficiency of its servers and reducing the energy footprint of the infrastructure of data centres are clearly to be commended, but efficiency by itself is not green if you are simply working to maximise output from the cheapest and dirtiest energy source available’.

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Greenpeace goes on to say that ultimately, if cloud providers want to be greener they must use their power and influence to drive investments near renewable energy sources.  Not only that, they must also become involved in promoting the policies that will drive the development of renewable electricity generation.

 

Well, first of all, as I’ve said before, I have reservations about Greenpeace’s black-and-white view of the world. It also wasn’t clear to me what the message was from much of this report.  And referring to cloud computing is just at attention-grabber – it’s data centres that are actually being referred to.  Cloud computing may be fuelling growth but it’s a much bigger issue.

Having said that, the central point of the Greenpeace report is a good one. Looking at the chart above, the PUEs of these data centres are impressive - by any reading, they are very efficient compared with the industry norm.  But that’s because it saves money, whereas simply pursuing an environmental outcome, such as using renewable energy may not.

It’s a moot point and has led to some confusion.  HP, for example, has just opened its most energy-efficient data centre to-date in north east England.  The company describes it as ‘the world’s first wind-cooled data centre’, but that’s not renewable energy, it’s free-air cooling technology, which the company claims reduces the energy required for cooling IT equipment and plant rooms by 40% compared to a traditional data centre. 

To be a truly environmentally friendly, perhaps the ideal route is to reduce PUE and invest the savings in renewable energy, if it’s available.  But siting a data centre for the best PUE may limit the power options.  Certainly the IT industry is not slow in using renewables where it can.  Last July we reported on the EPA Green Power Partnership ranking of the leading Fortune 500 purchasers of green energy in the US.  Intel lead, Dell was in 5th place, Cisco 7th, Sprint Nextel 20th and Motorola 21st.

But the point about cloud providers becoming involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation is well made. I’ve said before that IT companies need to be more directly involved in the policy making process that impacts their business. Global IT companies with huge data centre requirements can have a lot of influence.

© The Green IT Review

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