Well, Is The Cloud Really Green?

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The cloud has green credentials, but are they genuine, asks Peter Judge

For the last couple of years, we’ve been hearing regularly that cloud computing is “greener”. We think it is high time that claim got explored a bit.

The idea is based on the fact that cloud service providers aggregate servers together in virtual form, applying the economies of scale so the whole lot run more efficiently. Physical servers in users’ offices will throb away with wasted horsepower, and pump out heat, but the same job could be done by a virtual server which would scarcely impact the energy use of a shared data centre.

Is that really true?

Hear eWEEK Editor Peter Judge at Cloud Expo Europe

I can see the basic principle there, and it is part of explicit moves to the cloud such as that endorsed by the UK government, but I’ve wondered whether the story is a bit over-simplified.

So given a choice of topic for my talk at next week’s Cloud Expo Europe, in London, I opted for the title, Is the Cloud Green?

Cloud Expo brings together a host of experts on the subject of cloud computing, by the way, and most of the talks will be on practical subjects, from people such as Joan Miller, director of IT at the Houses of Parliament.

It’s possible that my talk will be a bit blue-sky alongside people like this, but I hope to make things concrete.

Who pays the bills?

It is entirely possible that users will move to the cloud because of a green-tinged stimulus, whether or not the cloud actually reduces energy usage and carbon emissions.

I’m thinking of CRC, an energy efficiency scheme which has become a “carbon tax”.  This will put up energy costs for the people who pay the bills, and it will require anyone running a data centre to apply efficiency measures.

In a nutshell, it will add another form of accounting to the various financial books the company has to keep. To do it properly, data centre managers will have to audit electricity, manage its use, and consider all sorts of things they probably never wanted to, such as the possibility of reducing energy through on-site generation, encouraged by feed-in tariffs.

If you are interested specifically in CRC, you should consider joining a webinar I am chairing on CRC next Wednesday. I’m hoping in that event to get to the bottom of the financial implications of the green tax.

For many companies, I think CRC may be the last straw that pushes them to wash their hands of data centre work and take it as a service, from people that do it for a living – as long as they can meet the necessary compliance rules.

In that sense, the cloud is “green” in some sense, because rules designed to be green will have been a major factor in pushing many organisations cloud-ward.

Deeper questions

That’s as far as most people will go in considering green IT as a factor in a possible move to the cloud. But I think there are a set of other questions to consider.

For instance, cloud computing involves transporting more data over longer distances than traditional solutions – and networks use an appreciable amount of energy.

Moving to the cloud can also increase the amount of IT equipment in the waste stream if you decommission existing servers to make the move.

The full equation is bound to be a complex one, but I think anyone moving to the cloud should attempt to asnswer it.

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