The Cloud And The Client: Apple’s Green Dilemma


Apple could find itself attacked simultaneously for wasting energy at the client, and burning coal-fired power in its iCloud data centres, says Peter Judge

Last week’s story that Apple may be planning a data centre in Oregon, near Facebook’s controversial location, may turn out to be a rumour, or may be reality. Either way, it was a timely reminder that consumerisation and the cloud are changing the way tech companies are judged on environmental issues.

Apple has had a poor rating from environmental campaigners in recent years, largely because of a lack of transparency about the environmental impact of its consumer products. This has been changing somewhat as it opens up slightly, and Apple sits somewhere in the middle of Greenpeace’s latest consumer IT rankings

A cloud hanging over all green IT?

However the arrival of the cloud changes things. When Apple first launched its iPad, Greenpeace was quick to respond that more client devices with higher expectations of data and connectivity, use more energy and create more emissions.

It is pretty much certain that that cloud-based computing is more efficient than the alternative, if that alternative is performing the same work on less efficiently loaded servers in smaller data centres.

However, if the work is stuff that would otherwise never have been done, then it’s creating more emisisons, no matter if the work is being done more efficiently. More client devices, making more work, does increase the overall total.

And then there is the question of how efficiently those client devices are operating. Cloud services may be built efficiently in the back end, but providers really don’t seem to be considering energy use in the client device.

As green data centre blogger Doug Mohney points out, the Apple iCloud installs a client which sits in the background on the PC. And sits.  According to Mohney, it “keeps the PC thinking something is actually happening, rather than allowing it to kick down into energy-saving sleep mode because there’s nothing going on.”

Now, I’m betting that in iPhones and iPads, battery life is such a consideration that this kind of thing is kept to a minimum. But Mohney reckons that Apple devices and their Android counterparts are tuned up to provide good response, so they ship with a default mode of “sync all the time”, rather than  “sync only when input device is active.”

When the tablet market becomes more competitive, then battery life will be a consideration, and manufacturers will be forced to make these kind of savings, but green campaigners should already be on their case.

In the longer term of course, the issue may go away. More mobile devices will have their own internal power – from vibration energy, harvesting ambient radio waves, thermal energy from body heatsound energysolar power, or even the energy created when users press keys.

In the meantime, however, although the energy used by client devices is small change in any domestic energy budget, businesses should be aware that managikng client devices, to use as little energy as possible, is still one of the most powerful ways to reduce the energy used by IT.

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