Communication for Sustainable Development

Moving ICT to the clouds Molly Webb on the carbon impact of data centres and whether companies should switch to cloud computing

Diagram showing overview of cloud computing in...Image via Wikipedia
Seven million iPads were sold in 2010, expected to triple by 2012. Five billion people have mobile phones. Internet traffic is expected to be at 91% this decade.
What then is the carbon impact of this activity, all the phones being replaced each year, the networks that drive them, base stations every few kilometers, all requiring 24-hour power. What about the power we need to run global finance, our governments, transport systems or business applications and email?

In 2008, global CO2 emissions from ICT were just under 1bn tonnes, or about 2% of global emissions according to the SMART 2020 report and Gartner. Data centres are the fastest growing area of the ICT sector's footprint.

But some computing trends may be good news for curbing emissions. Cloud computing is expected to grow at 28% annually to become a $200bn business by 2015. (Key 2011 technology trend-watchers are mentioning cloud computing as a transformational software: see Smart Planet, Gartner, ComputerWorld.
'The Cloud' is internet-based computing. Gmail and Facebook are 'in the cloud'. Instead of having a room full of servers, a company can simply rent infrastructure from Amazon to run web applications, or pay monthly subscription for software like Salesforce. This is cheaper and more energy efficient.
Cloud computing saves energy and emissions by using infrastructure more efficiently. It does this in four ways, according to a recent report from Microsoft, Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy.

Dynamic Provisioning: Providing infrastructure only when its needed
Multi-Tenancy: Multiple organisations share the same servers to maximise efficiency
Server Utilisation: Making sure a software application is using the server efficiently, so more can be done on the same server
Data Centre Efficiency: Measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE), the design, build and operation of data centres, including heating and cooling or lighting efficiency, is optimised
The energy savings attributed to services hosted in the cloud varies from 30% to 90% depending on the size of the service.

Is this unquestionably good news? It is worth bearing in mind a couple of points (though not an exhaustive list):
1. Our knowledge about the direct footprint of ICT is an estimate, and so is the data on cloud computing. The above report findings are based only specifically on Microsoft's cloud services. We don't know very much about the data centres that are behind Google and Facebook, for instance.
These companies don't report much information publicly about their data centre energy consumption, although Google is certainly sharing information about best practices in optimising power usage effectiveness (PUE). But companies for whom efficient infrastructure becomes a selling point – such as Dell and Microsoft – are very interested in making sure they are known for their good practices. The Green Grid is a consortium of companies driving standards for energy consumption from computing, and it is developing other metrics in addition to PUE, including carbon utilisation efficiency (CUE) calculated as the total CO2 emissions caused by data centre operations divided by the IT energy equipment energy usage.
2. The 'rebound effect' or 'Jevon's paradox' describes the phenomenon that productivity gains inevitably lead to more growth. As David Owen notes in 'The Efficiency Dilemma: If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?', aren't we in danger of seeing IT efficiency gains eclipsed by the scale of global growth, so that absolute emissions continue to increase? Perhaps. But most experts seem to believe that in general, efficiency gains will outweigh the rebound effects (see analysis from ACEEE here). Ultimately, energy efficiency can deliver huge benefits if we set boundaries on the overall consumption we'd like to see. After the 1970s oil crisis, Amory Lovins argued that paying attention to oil from 1977 to 1985 meant that oil use fell 17% while GDP rose 27%.
More exciting perhaps than setting boundaries, is to see cloud applications aggressively developed to reduce emissions in other sectors. Imagine Facebook for energy, where you can trade tips on the efficiency of your fridge and buy a better model that your friend recommends. Social 'cloud' energy apps are already on my top tech trends list for 2011 and 2012.
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