Greenpeace International

Make it green - cloud computing and its contribution to climate change


Courtesy of Courtesy of Greenpeace International

The announcement of Apple’s iPad has been much anticipated by a world with an ever-increasing appetite for mobile computing devices as a way to connect, interact, learn and work. As rumours circulated – first about its existence and then about its capabilities - the iPad received more media attention than any other gadget in recent memory. Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs finally showcased his company’s latest creation before a rapt audience in San Francisco. From their smart phones and netbooks, the crowd feverishly blogged and tweeted real time updates out to a curious world.

Whether you actually want an iPad or not, there is no doubt that it is a harbinger of things to come. The iPad relies upon cloud-based computing to stream video, download music and books, and fetch email. Already, millions access the ‘cloud’ to make use of online social  networks, watch streaming video, check email and create documents, and store thousands of digital photos online on popular web-hosted sites like Flickr and Picasa.

The term cloud, or cloud computing, used as a metaphor for the internet, is based on an infrastructure and business model whereby - rather than being stored on your own device - data, entertainment, news and other products and services are delivered to your device, in real time, from the internet. The creation of the cloud has been a boon both to the companies hosting it and to consumers who now need nothing but a personal computer and internet access to fulfill most of their computing needs.

Google is perhaps the most famous cloud-based company to demonstrate the potential of a cloud platform to drive a hugely successful business model. All of Google’s signature products - Gmail, Google Documents and Google Earth - are delivered from the cloud. Its ambitious project to create a digital library will be entirely hosted by servers storing most of the world’s published work, all in digitised form.

The cloud is growing at a time when climate change and reducing emissions from energy use is of paramount concern.With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy. For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That ‘somewhere’ is data centres - massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy.

But decisions about how the cloud will be built out are being made by business leaders primarily concerned with quarterly profit statements and earnings for shareholders.

Facebook vs. Yahoo

For example, in January 2010, Facebook commissioned a new data centre in Oregon and committed to a power service provider agreement with PacificCorp, a utility that gets the majority of its energy from coal-fired power stations, the United States’ largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Effectively becoming an industrial-scale consumer of electricity, Facebook now faces the same choices and challenges that other large ‘cloud-computing’ companies have in building their data centres.With a premium being placed on access to the cheapest electricity available on the grid. In many countries, this means dirty coal.

All the same, other companies have made better decisions for siting some of their data centres. Yahoo!, for instance, chose to build a data centre outside Buffalo, New York, that is powered by energy from a hydroelectric power plant - dramatically decreasing its carbon footprint. Google Energy, a subsidiary of cloud leader Google, applied and was recently approved as a regulated wholesale buyer and seller of electricity in the United States, giving it greater flexibility as to where it buys its electricity to power its data centres.

Brown cloud or green cloud?

Ultimately, if cloud providers want to provide a truly green and renewable cloud, they must use their power and influence to not only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also become involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation economy-wide, and place greater R&D into storage devices that will deliver electricity from renewable sources 24/7. (See page 11 for prescriptive policy recommendations for IT companies.)

If we hope to phase out dirty sources of energy to address climate change, then - given the massive amounts of electricity needed in order to run computers, provide backup power and coordinate related cooling equipment that even energy-efficient data centres consume - the last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power. The potential of ICT technologies and cloud computing to drive low-carbon economic growth underscore the importance of building cloud infrastructure in places powered by clean renewable energy. Companies like Facebook, Google, and other large players in the cloud computing market must advocate for policy change at the local, national and international levels to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does the supply of renewable energy.

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