In the Cloud or the Smog?

On March 30th Greenpeace released its "Make IT Green" dossier, right on time to ride the media wave surrounding the arrival of the first iPads. They tell us that that the energy consumption of cloud computing will triple by 2020 if left unchecked, to more than the current usage of France, Germany, Canada, and Brazil combined.

Of course, they do not try and fight this growth in IT usage. What they do make clear is that the huge data centers of companies like Google, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Apple need to start sourcing cleaner energy to make this growth sustainable. Naturally, all data center managers are pushing for efficiency all of the time to cut their gigantic energy bills, but Greenpeace argue that even with huge improvements in efficiency, CO2 emissions will continue to rise.

As they put it: “The industry also needs to take responsibility for where it gets its energy from in the first place. Simply put: Will the cloud run on coal or renewable energy?"

Recognising that the contributions of IT to carbon emissions pale in comparison to some other global problems, Alex Steffen at WorldChanging.com argues that targeting trendy technologies "may pull hits," but "if Greenpeace really wants to get up in people's grill about something that needs to change, it should start with their cars."

The easy reaction for the companies concerned is to point out that the cloud itself already presents a huge efficiency saving over traditional computing. Firstly, people no longer have to drive to the shops for every item they want; online delivery offers vast energy savings.

More importantly though, multi-tenant cloud data centers are by definition more efficient than single server rooms. Not only are they investing in the most advanced technology possible, but the data centers intelligently manage the resources between each client, using the hardware as efficiently as possible.

In fact, Amazon Web Services (AWS) was founded because Amazon had huge computing power to deal with the Christmas rush that went to waste for the rest of the year. They founded AWS and started renting out this extra capacity to the world.

However, just because cloud computing is a significant improvement over what has gone before, that doesn't excuse it from trying to do its utmost for the green cause. With mottos such as Google's "Don't Be Evil," Twitter's "Be a force for good" and Facebook's "With Power comes great Responsibility" maybe these sorts of companies should be setting an example.

But for them, doing something proactive and socially "good" also brings great profits. James Murray on the BusinessGreen Blog argues "If you are a globally recognised computer company whose reputation in many ways depends as much on its ability to appeal to hip, young, media savvy consumers as it does on its cutting edge technology you'd think you'd want to be seen as down with the green zeitgeist and supportive of the whole environmental movement."

Rather than being an inconvenient expense to the cloud powers, perhaps the "green zeitgeist" is a great opportunity to get ahead of the competition. Sooner or later, governments are going to catch up with public opinion on climate change and the companies are going to find themselves forced into action. By acting now, the big players in the cloud can turn green expenses to their advantage.