Cloud-Based Services Can Save Money, But at What Cost?

by Rebecca Smith Hurd on May 26, 2011
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Is cloud computing green? It’s a question everyone seems to be asking with renewed vigor lately, ever since Greenpeace released a report about the energy efficiency — or lack thereof — of ten leading data centers, including those run by Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter.

The report accuses the industry at large of “perpetuating our addiction to dirty energy technologies of the last two centuries,” meaning coal and nuclear, and “failing to take seriously the need to power [the] widespread aggregation of the world’s information with clean, renewable energy.” The authors argue that, in addition to working toward greater energy efficiency, data center operators must consider the sources of any electricity they consume, not just the amount.

Unfortunately, as veteran environmental journalist Todd Woody wonders aloud at Grist.org, the report isn’t all that comprehensive. “Tech companies guard their data-center data like state secrets, and Greenpeace is relying on what public information is available, as well as previous studies.” The rankings, he notes, “are not kind to Silicon Valley companies who like to cultivate a clean green image.”

Just before the report’s release on April 20, both Facebook and Microsoft made public announcements touting their efforts to make their operations more open and efficient. On April 6, the social-networking giant said it would share the hardware technology that it developed to conserve energy at its Prineville, Oregon, data center, in the hopes that other web companies would use — and improve upon — it. Facebook says the tech uses 38 percent less energy to do the same work as its existing facilities and costs 24 percent less.

“The ultimate goal of the Open Compute Project, however, is to spark a collaborative dialogue,” Jonathan Heiliger, vice president of technical operations, wrote in a note posted on Facebook. “We want to recruit others to be part of this collaboration — and we invite you to join us in this mission to collectively develop the most efficient computing infrastructure possible.” (Not surprisingly, Greenpeace says this isn’t enough.)

Meanwhile, the Microsoft News Center on April 19 published a feature article about Christian Belady’s quest to shrink by half the infrastructure needed to run data centers. “My goal in life is to make the data center disappear,” says Belady, the general manager of datacenter advanced development for the company, whose largest facility is “the size of 17 football fields.” Microsoft hosts more than 200 different cloud services, such as Bing, Hotmail, and Office 365.

Small business should be interested in data centers — and aware of the issues surrounding them — because cloud computing offers many cost-saving opportunities, such as not having to set up infrastructure (e.g., retail software, email and file servers, storage systems). What’s more, “The ‘anywhere, anytime’ availability of these solutions means hassle-free collaboration between business partners and employees by simply using a browser,” IT specialist Samara Lynn writes for PC Magazine. “In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that aside from a locally installed desktop operating system and browser, a lot of today’s small business technology needs can be fulfilled almost completely with cloud-based offerings.”

That sounds pretty appealing to those of us trying to run sustainable small businesses that support people, profits, and the planet. But what about the final part of that equation: Is cloud computing green? The answer seems to be not yet, but data center operators are working on it.

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