Greenpeace did some detailed research on the “greenness” of electronic brands, versus the energy choices that power cloud computing. Pam Baker relates what they found, and tells us how to use the information to get the most ROI from our own 'go green' efforts.
Greenpeace makes no bones over rattling closeted skeletons in manufacturers’ green claims. Whatever the agency finds, it exposes, and whatever excuse manufacturers offer is never excused.
Given Greenpeace’s unrelenting focus on assessing the shades of green that technologies actually render, the agency is widely trusted to cut through marketing-speke. This is certainly the case in the debate on whether the cloud or on-premise data centres are the cleanest and greenest choice.
Love them or hate them, Greenpeace undeniably delivers well-researched, actionable data, on a scale few CIOs can undertake for themselves.
On the side of on-premise technologies, whether company-owned or consumerised IT, the international environmental organisation produced its findings in the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, wherein it ranks 15 companies across three brutally weighed areas: energy, greener products, and sustainable operations. The November 2011 study gave consumer electronics company HP top marks for its sustainable operations, taking the lead over Dell and Nokia.
“Right now, HP takes the top spot because it is scoring strongly by measuring and reducing carbon emissions from its supply chain, reducing its own emissions and advocating for strong climate legislation,” said Greenpeace International campaigner Tom Dowdall in a statement to the press. “However all companies we included in the Guide have an opportunity to show more leadership in reducing their climate impact.”
After three years at the top of the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, Nokia slipped from first place to third, mainly “due to weaker performance on the Energy criteria.” Meanwhile, Research in Motion (RIM) debuted at the bottom of the table because the maker of Blackberry mobile devices “needs to improve reporting and disclosure of its environmental performance.” However, RIM got high marks on conflict minerals and sustainable paper policy.
Greenpeace did not stop at ranking earthbound hardware. It extended its evaluations to services in the cloud. Before this thorough examination of the impact of the cloud on environment, CIOs were of two minds on the issue.
On the one hand, the cloud is considered greener because it essentially consolidates numerous data centres (operating only occasionally at peak) into fewer behemoth data centres that are almost always running at peak. Fewer data centres, the thinking goes, mean less energy use in operating and cooling, which ultimately extends to a smaller carbon footprint.
On the other hand, data centres are data centres. They require huge amounts of energy no matter where they are located or in what configuration, i.e. distributed or consolidated. Indeed, Greenpeace found that the world’s data centres “currently consume 1.5-2% of all global electricity” and “this is growing at a rate of 12% a year.”
So, is the cloud green or isn’t it? Or, put another way, if you are seriously looking at going green – be that to save money on energy costs or to save the earth for future generations – is it better to cloud or not to cloud?
How Dirty is Your Data?
To help answer the question of whether the cloud is truly a greener option, Greenpeace produced a report titled How Dirty is Your Data – A Look at the Energy Choices That Power Cloud Computing. In that study, Greenpeace found that “The technologies of the 21st century are still largely powered by the dirty coal power of the past, with over half of the companies rated herein relying on coal for between 50% and 80% of their energy needs.”
The report continues on to say that cloud data centres physically located in emerging markets run primarily on diesel generators, largely due to an absence of reliable grid electricity. In mature markets, data centre clusters, such as Google, Facebook, and Apple’s, are cropping up in places, “where cheap and dirty coal-powered electricity is abundant.”
But non-cloud datacentres are often powered in the same way. Could it be that the cloud, which is so loudly and often touted as green, is really in a muddy draw with on-premise data centres?
This is the point in the evaluation where most public cloud providers would pivot to a discussion on efficiency. Indeed, until recently all discussion around “going green” was centreed on efficiency improvements. But Greenpeace rejects efficiency claims as partial answers at best and deliberate misdirection at worst:
…as the electricity demand of IT remains on the rise, efficiency can only slow emission growth. In order to achieve the reductions necessary to keep the sector’s emissions in check and maintain safe levels of global greenhouse gases, clean energy needs to become the primary source of power for IT infrastructure. A few companies have taken steps to steer their infrastructure investments toward cleaner energy, but the sector as a whole remains focused on rapid growth. The replacement of dirty sources of electricity with clean renewable ones is still the crucial missing link in the sector’s sustainability efforts.
If energy efficiency, in light of the increased consumption of energy overall, is not enough to qualify as green, then what else must be done?
From Coal to Cold
“It takes more than efficient design and energy management to make an on-premise data centre green,” explains Lisa Rhodes, vice president of Marketing and Sales at Verne Global, a UK-based co-location vendor which owns and operates a data centre in Keflavik, Iceland, one of the few in the world that is fully powered by 100% renewable energy sources.
“You really need the right location to provide available, economical, renewable, and reliable power to truly harness a green offering, and the cloud gives you flexibility to source the services in a location that naturally provides these types of green benefits,” adds Rhodes.
Verne Global chose Iceland for the location of its data centre in order to take full advantage of the dual-sourced renewable energy sources and the natural cooling effects.
“Iceland's power comes from 100% renewable hydroelectric and geothermal energy. In addition, data centres can utilise Iceland's natural cool climate for free cooling to negate the need for chillers, making the day-to-day data centre operations extremely energy efficient,” says Rhodes.
Other companies are partnering or hosting with Verne Green to provide truly green cloud services in a location that incurs less natural disaster risk and is strategically located between London and New York. While this arrangement is one of the first on the scene, it is by no means the last of its kind.
“As to attempting to put cold climates to use and minimising air conditioning power needs, Facebook just announced a huge data centre located out near the Arctic Circle in Sweden to serve Europe and Google has built a data centre out in rural Finland for similar reasons,” says Raphael Bouskila, resident tech expert at Inerjys Ventures in Montreal, a £625 million renewable energy venture fund.
“In North America, there's been some discussion of doing the same in Quebec as the Quebec utility Hydro-Quebec has had negotiations with Google about this topic, and the government is planning on investing in this as part of its £50 billion Plan Nord strategy to develop the far north of Quebec,” says Bouskila.
But cold climes are not the only environmentally friendly tack. Greenpeace says heavy or exclusive use of renewable energy sources are a huge factor in going green.
It is for precisely that reason that Facebook rather loudly announced its hybrid solar electric and thermal system for its new Menlo Park headquarters and why Apple tried to sneak in its plans for a solar electric facility at its data centre in North Caronlina before competitors could beat it to the punch.
Greenpeace says such comprehensive efforts represent the true path to green. Indeed, the agency advocates global deployment of clean and sustainable renewable energy to meet the rapidly growing global demand for energy and simultaneously ensure energy security. To that end, Greenpeace published its 2010 Energy [R]evolution, “a practical blueprint for the world's renewable energy future,” in conjunction with specialists from the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) and the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics at German Aerospace Centre (DLR), along with more than 30 scientists and engineers from around the world. The report contains guidance on how and when to use each form of renewable energy to the best advantage.
As one might expect, the answer to the question of which is greener, cloud or on-premise data centres, is not a simple nod to one or the other.
Nonetheless, “The answer is that Cloud is generally greener,” says Alex Barreto, CTO of ClouidIO. Barreto also serves on Intuit’s Board of Advisors and formerly served as principal architect and technology evangelist at Adobe Systems.
“Let's start with the fact that Cloud is not an either-or question for on- or off-premise; it is a usage and business model for utility computing. Although running such a utility computing resource on-premise cannot reach the scale of off-premise, it still is Cloud. And although the front-loaded costs of setting up an on-premise, private Cloud seem daunting, it still is far more resource and cost effective than running a traditional IT on-premise data centre,” explains Barreto.
While the first steps toward green are likely to be focused on efficiencies and energy cost reductions, being a truly green data centre means going beyond that to control energy sources, emissions, material use, and other factors – most of which you can find detailed in one of the three Greenpeace reports cited above.
While many companies will go to such lengths to ensure the earth is capable of supporting life in future generations, many companies will not have such an altruistic agenda. Those companies will be focused on building green datacentres as a way to save money and ensure energy security from threats that now hover over the utility infrastructures in first world countries.
Whatever the reasons for making the move, in the end truly green datacentres are a winning proposition.