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How Green is The Cloud?

Great question from Tom over on the Greenmonk blog.

Not sure he correlated the question with this slightly bizarre incident he also wrote up, in which Google rebuts a claim about how energy intensive it is. Plausible denial against academic research that hasn’t even been peer-reviewed? Weird, or perhaps just a sign of things to come? Cloud providers are going to make Green claims. I can easily see Google and Amazon competing on that basis.

Of course one issue with the cloud in this context is transparency and auditability? How are we going to evaluate one claim against another? Evaluation is going to become even more important as Carbon trading and Carbon Added Tax kicks in. You don’t expect to see CAT? Even Exxon-Mobil’s CEO is calling for carbon taxes.

Seems like Nick Carr is in the mix too, as ever. That dude is true grit, always making pearls (to case before swine). Nick, like any good researcher, follows the money:

In addition to being a researcher, Wissner-Gross is an entrepreneur who has a start-up that sells a service for tracking the electricity consumption of web sites. So he has a commercial as well as an academic interest here. So far as I can tell, he hasn’t made public his calculations. If he’s going to throw his conclusions around, he should show us how he arrived at them.

But Nick is also prepared to buy into the basic position.

Google has been very aggressive in developing energy-saving computer technologies (much more so than traditional PC and server manufacturers) – and its efforts should be applauded. Cutting energy consumption is a business imperative for the company (because its electric bill is one of its biggest costs), and I think it’s fair to say that the Googlers see it as a moral imperative, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that its search engine and other Internet services, like those of other online companies, consume an enormous quantity of electricity.

Our very own Stephen O’Grady though calls him out thus:

“i don’t disagree with the basic premise – that Google and its friends are massive consumers of electricity, or that we need to think about all of our consumption. but i think Carr is neglecting to discuss the implications of non-digital distribution on the environment because it might complicate his argument.”

Point, counterpoint. It seems to that we’re facing an economy of scale problem here- and frankly if Goog and M$ didn’t know energy was an issue they wouldn’t be building on rivers, and investing in wind farms. It is very good though to see Nick agitating about Energy – me and Tom both think that’s in many respects the more interesting Big Switch (replacing aging energy infrastructure with smart grids and renewables).

Every time I think about carbon trading a little lightbulb goes off in my head. Enron, which kicked off the recent age of SOX, was of course an energy-trading company… and that’s Cloud Computing companies are likely to become. Energy, Compliance, Cloud- not too many interlinked problems to solve then…

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8 Responses

  1. James – left this on Greenmonk as well – a bit of top-level analysis I did on my blog using kWh, which are less, umm, “flexible” than CO” grams. The Times article gives Google the energy needs of a 500,000 person city, the Google figures give the energy needs of a village.

    Google’s infrastructure is far closer in scale to that required by a moderate sized city than a village. So, if not search, something is eating up all the power.

    (See here http://broadstuff.com/archives/1494-Google-searching-not-eco-friendly.html)

  2. very interesting alan. at the moment it seems like everyone else is taking heat, but Google doth seem to protest rather more than I would expect.

    James GovernorJanuary 13, 2009 @ 10:14 amReply
  3. “They’re simply doing good so that they will do well themselves. That isn’t doing good, is it?”
    Why the hell not? Why should we set such a high standard that only if you don’t benefit an act can be considered good?
    There is nothing wrong with companies seeing a benefit to “becoming green”, as long as they are not cheating. Expecting companies to be altruistic is not realistic. If we want the companies to be “good”, we need to encourage act of being good by rewarding it, not the other way around.
    Berkay
    This comment was originally posted on SmoothSpan Blog

  4. My problem, Berkay, is that if they just did good for some short term gain, and not because they really want to do good, how do you know they won’t cut corners in some other way, ultimately not doing good? How do you know the donation you’re making when you buy a bottle of their water really gets to the people intended? How do you know the bottling process doesn’t create a whole host of other problems because the organization doesn’t really care about doing good, they only care about the appearance of doing good?
    BW
    This comment was originally posted on SmoothSpan Blog

  5. I think I understand your concern. I’d certainly not make a donation just because a company is claiming to do something good.
    From my perspective, it does not pay to assign human characteristics to companies and expect them to be altruistic. They are created to make money.
    Consider this scenario: A manufacturer makes a product and can choose the cheapest material, and there is an alternative material that is cleaner, better for environment but also more expensive. If the product manager can argue that cost may increase somewhat but it would also allow the company have some green cred, he has a shot at convincing his management, otherwise it is a much harder. This is not altruistic behavior but better for everyone regardless.
    By creating a culture that values being “green”, we’re giving the companies the an incentive to make the right decision. So I say let them make a case to the public why/how they are becoming greener. If it is BS, let’s call them on it, but let’s not dismiss it if they are becoming green because it is good business for them.
    Just my 1.23 cents ..
    Berkay
    http://www.mberkay.com
    This comment was originally posted on SmoothSpan Blog

  6. James,

    Interesting post… There would be much to say indeed on:
    – the footprint of using commodity hardware at low utilisation % and with low recycling rates
    – The benefits of dematerialisation

  7. James there has got to be some implications for pricing of cloud computing as we move to a low carbon economy as well – I think that cloud providers will likely become energy traders. I wrote up some initial thoughts on the subject a few months back: http://nullisnotanobject.com/2008/11/cloud-computing-smart-grids-smart-clouds/



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