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Greenpeace’s Comment On The Lack Of “Greenness” In Cloud Computing

by Simon Mingay  |  April 6, 2010  |  2 Comments

As a number of blogs and articles have observed the recent report from Greenpeace has some technical flaws.

 The main issue for me, is that they seem to conflate “the cloud” and “the internet” and “information technology”, and then don’t really address the potential environmental benefits of real cloud computing. If they had simply referred to “IT” instead of “cloud” they would have been on firmer ground.

 The potential environmental benefits of cloud will come from the massive efficiencies achieved through a shared infrastructure which dynamically reallocates resources to where they are needed. And while none of the cloud providers have actually proven it yet, and of course much of the benefit will depend on how it is implemented and operated, nevertheless the potential is clear.

 The fundamental point they are trying to make is of course that the IT sector, and cloud service providers in particular, have an opportunity to help drive change to a low carbon economy by choosing locations and energy supplies that enable low-carbon highly efficient use of energy. And Greenpeace’s frustration is partly the hypocrisy of an industry rightly positioning itself as part of the solution to climate change, and partly that while there is little doubt about the cloud service providers focus on energy efficiency, there is in reality not much focus on low carbon.  Greenpeace are simply trying to bring pressure to bare on the sector to a be a catalyst for change.

 There are of course many factors that go into deciding on where to locate a new data center, not least the tax and other fiscal incentives made available  by various authorities to locate in a particular place. The availability of a stable reliable, cheap energy supply, big fat reliable telecommunications infrastructure etc.  Low-carbon comes a long way down the list. But I would add that judging the carbon intensity of a data centers power supply based on its location is way to simplistic. The renewable component of that power will likely already have been sold off using Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) or their local equivalent. Though of course not all fossil fuels are as bad as each other in terms of carbon intensity per kWh, so the fuel source is important.

The service providers need to recognise that energy efficient is not “green” on its own, and is no longer enough. NGOs, and increasingly customers will demand more. There are things that these service providers can do to mitigate the carbon issues, and there is an awful lot more they could do to mitigate the brand risks they are running, not least by being much more transparent.

HP recently opened a new data center in the UK at Wynyard which uses a range of efficiency solutions, notably free cooling, which they estimate will only require the of the chilling plant for 20 hours a year. It’s PUE is around 1.16 (I understand the limitations of PUE). So it’s got the potential to be very efficient.  But they also have a renewable energy contract and buy RECs to go some way to cover the carbon issues. Which makes for a much more sensible strategy if you want to avoid the criticisms coming the industry’s way.

We have not seen the last “coal fired data center” story for sure. And while the criticism is rarely entirely fair, the industry could do a lot better in its communications, transparency and carbon mitigation strategies.

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Simon Mingay
Research VP
15 years at Gartner
29 years IT industry

Simon Mingay is a research vice president in Gartner Research. Mr. Mingay is currently researching environmental sustainability and climate change, their impact on organizations, and their impact on IT and the IT industry. Read Full Bio

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