How green is the Cloud?

Should we trust vendor claims that the Cloud is the answer to all our Green problems?

There’s an argument doing the rounds that says the best way to describe the Cloud’s Green benefits is to compare it to commuters abandoning their cars in favour of public transport. The more commuters abandon their cars, the greater the carbon reduction benefits.

Now, substitute commuters for IT managers and CIOs, data centres for cars, and public transport for the Cloud and you get the argument for why a mass migration to the Cloud will reap sizable Green rewards.

Cloud computing strategy guide: Moving your enterprise to the cloud.

But is that a fair argument? Is the assumption that Cloud computing is inherently Greener correct? Well, some quarters have begun to question that logic, arguing there isn’t enough evidence to suggest Cloud is as sustainable as vendors would have you believe.

University of Melbourne professor and Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society director, Rod Tucker — who has conducted research into the energy efficiency of different Cloud computing tasks and compared them against local, desktop computing processes — says the rationale underlying the Cloud’s Greenness is dubious as it neglects the consumption of energy required in transferring data from end-users to vendors’ data centres.

“If you are a manufacturer or a distributor of goods ... then you have to consider not just the processing and storage of these goods, but you also have to consider the transport, moving the goods to the location where they’re used,” he says.

“What we’re [Tucker and his fellow researchers] saying is that the same thing applies in Cloud computing.”

However, in his research, Tucker found that the Cloud could be energy efficient depending on the amount of data needed to be moved: the less the data required; the more environmental benefit.

“If you’re doing something like checking your email where the amount of data is really tiny, the conventional wisdom of Cloud computing being very Green and energy efficient is valid,” he says. “But we’ve considered a number of cases where it isn’t necessarily Green.”

Tucker also attributes the un-Greenness of the Cloud to the technological layers of the internet, where routers are increasingly eating up more power and energy is consumed every step of the process.

“There’s quite a lot of processing that goes on in those routers … and they’re major big boxes in the core of the internet and those consume a fair amount of energy as well; less than the access network but the amount of energy being consumed by the routers is growing,” he says.

For Casey Harrell, Greenpeace International IT analyst, in terms of electricity use, Cloud would be the fifth largest country after the USA, China, Japan and Russia if it were a country.

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