A Green Cloud is a Transparent Cloud

By Eric Woods
Pike Research
Guest Blogger, Energy Efficiency Markets
June 22, 2011

At Connectivity Week in Santa Clara, recently, I took part in a series of panel discussions on data center energy efficiency. The discussions covered a wide range of issues from the practicalities of infrastructure optimization to the possible role of data centers in demand response schemes. There was a particular focus on the importance, and also the challenge, of making a closer connection between overall data center efficiency and the effective work being done by IT equipment. A more general theme was the sheer complexity of the changes happening in the data center industry. It seems everything is in flux, from changes in the power grid to the impact of smart devices on IT demand. This is the context in which operational changes like the move to more dynamic management of power and cooling infrastructures and the introduction of virtualization are taking place.

In the midst of these changes, it was a pleasure to hear what some of the leading companies are doing in terms of increasing the energy efficiency and lowering their environmental impact of their data centers. An important point was made about the benefits of sharing good ideas, experience, and best practice. The data center professionals at the event, which included people from Cisco, NetApp, and Sybase/SAP, were generous with the insight they provided on what they are doing in their data centers and the challenges they face. The question was also asked why some data centers are less willing to talk about the specifics of their operation. While commercial sensitivities are often cited, the issues that are being addressed in terms of cooling efficiency, for example, can hardly be seen as business critical. More importantly, lack of transparency makes it harder to assess the real environmental impact of a given data center.

This discussion came back to me as I read the latest Greenpeace report on the environmental performance of the IT industry. In the report, “How Dirty Is Your Data?“, the organization takes a critical look at the environmental impact of the growth in data centers. Greenpeace is largely positive about the role that IT can play in reducing carbon emissions and other forms of environmental damage. It also recognizes the impact of the move to cloud computing on demand patterns and on how the industry operates. However, the report makes the case, that cloud computing will only be as green as the data centers that support it. We have made a similar point regarding how realizing the potential environmental benefits of cloud computing depends on how the model is actually instantiated. One of Greenpeace’s strongest criticisms of current practice is that there is still a tendency among some of the biggest players in the cloud space to build data centers in low-cost energy regions that are largely dependent on coal-powered generators. The organization’s bust-up with Facebook over this issue is well-known, but it points out that other major cloud providers have also shown inconsistency in their location planning for data centers. The irony, of course, is that these decisions are often being made in parallel with much-lauded moves to use more renewable energy in other data centers or to improve the energy efficiency of operations. On the positive side, Greenpeace sees some signs of more considered and transparent strategies for data center location emerging, with Yahoo! cited as a pathfinder in this regard.

However, the strongest point made by the Greenpeace report and the one that connects back to the discussions in Santa Clara, is about the general lack of transparency on these issues. As the report says, “much of the information that would allow us to assess the net benefits of the cloud by measuring the true environmental cost…is missing.” The role of data centers as “the factories of the Technology Revolution” means that we need to develop greater visibility on the choices being made about their energy consumption and their energy sources. Any company has the right to keep its operational data private, but customers, investors, and employees have a right to know how well it is living up to its own ethical claims and how it compares with its competitors on the sustainability of its operations. If cloud computing is to live up to claims of being a greener solution, then we need more open reporting and standard metrics on energy use in data centers to enable an objective assessment of how well providers are performing.

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