Cloud Computing helps companies (and individuals) off-load their computing needs onto a network-based facility.
At a personal level, the advent of mobile Internet devices such as
- 3G/4G Broadband Roaming cards for laptops,
- Kindle / eBook Readers,
- BlackBerrys /Smartphones,
has fueled a need for network-based applications, storage, backup, social networking, and a variety of other services. These needs are typically met by a data center somewhere “off in the cloud” that is managed by someone else.
Similarly at a corporate level, clouds have enabled Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) opportunities that basically outsource management of the IT infrastructure to the Cloud provider on a pay-per-use basis.
In both cases, the cloud user’s carbon foot-print is reduced since less infrastructure is needed on-site.
Or is it?
Cloud computing simply transfers the burden of IT service delivery onto the cloud service provider. Not surprisingly most of these providers are currently in the USA – with data centers in the USA.
Sadly most regions in the USA depend on dirty carbon-fired generating stations (oil, gas, coal) to provide electrical power, so it comes as no surprise that power-hungry data centers are dependent on greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting coal-burning power plants.
The most popular form of “clean” energy generation in the USA is to use nuclear power to heat water to drive steam turbines.
Although the power-generation part of the nuclear power story is arguably clean, there is still that pesky detail of how to dispose of the radioactive waste that results from the process. Since that problem has not been solved and is literally “buried”, nuclear power is actually dirty.
Isn’t it strange that in the 21st century, IT is largely dependent on coal & steam?
Greenpeace recently did a survey of some of the largest and better-known Internet sites to raise an alarm about the dirty side of cloud computing:
- Apple’s largest data center is in Lenoir, NC (500,000 Sq Ft) with a dependence on 96% dirty power. Apple is building an even larger facility nearby that will have the same dependency on dirty power.
- Yahoo’s 190,000 Sq Ft data center in Lockport, NY is 72% dependent on dirty power, while its largest facility in La Vista, NE (350,000 Sq Ft) is 93% dependent on dirty power. Yahoos’ dirty power index is 86% based on the weighed average of these two facilities.
- Google’s two largest data centers are in Lenoir, NC (476,000 Sq Ft) and Dalles, OR (206,000 Sq Ft). The Lenoir facility depends on 96% dirty power and the Dalles facility depends on 49% dirty power. The weighted dirty power consumption index for Google is 82%.
- Microsoft’s 700,000 Sq Ft data center in Chicago is 99% dependent on dirty power, while its 470,000 Sq Ft data center in San Antonio, TX is 89% dependent on dirty power. Microsoft’s 470,000 Quincy, WA data center is 100% clean energy powered (hydro). The weighted average dirty power consumption index for Microsoft is 68%.
What Greenpeace doesn’t tell you is that these industry giants are all trying to improve their GHG-emissions.
Although Apple has been visibly reducing the carbon footprint of its products and has taken the high ground in responsibly accounting for its total product life cycle impact, it appears that its IT department has not yet focused on this problem.
Overall, Apple reports that its facilities, including data centers, account for 3% of its total life cycle GHG emissions. In other words, Apple has a massive reduction challenge to solve in the manufacturing and use of its power-hungry products before it shifts its focus on internal IT impact.
Apple’s focus on lifecycle impact will have a larger collateral benefit on reducing GHG emissions globally.
Yahoo is building a large facility in Buffalo, NY that is expected to be hydro-powered, so we can expect that its dirty power footprint will fall somewhat in the near future.
Meanwhile, Microsoft appears to have the leadership position with 25% of its total energy consumption coming from renewable sources.
All of this leaves considerable room for improvement and Greenpeace is rightfully keeping the heat on cloud computing.