The Power Behind Cloud Computing

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Apr 7, 2010

Cloud computing and virtualization deliver a host of benefits centered around flexibility and reduced costs. There is also a perception that they are more environmentally friendly options. While this may be true to some degree for virtualization, in the case of cloud computing, it is often a misconception.

Virtually Speaking: As more enterprises move their apps to a cloud computing environment, data centers will grow bigger and bigger, and how they are powered will be critical. A recent report by Greenpeace International sheds some light.

When an enterprise migrates to a virtualized infrastructure, it most likely consolidates down to fewer machines. Often consolidation is one of the drivers. Sometimes new (and, thus, typically more energy-efficient) hardware must be purchased to accommodate the increased workload per machine. In either case, fewer servers running ultimately means a smaller carbon footprint.

The same cannot be said for cloud computing. In cloud computing, at its simplest, you're basically transferring your computing needs, or part of your needs, to a different location. Sure, the enterprise sending its data to the cloud is reducing its own carbon footprint, but there is no net reduction.

Such was the subject of a recent Greenpeace report that has gotten a good bit of attention this past week. The report, "Make IT Green, Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change," was deliberately released to coincide with Apple's iPad release because, "it is a harbinger of things to come. The iPad relies upon cloud-based computing to stream video, download music and books, and fetch email."

The report lays much of the blame on consumer demand for the iPad and similar devices that rely on on "the cloud" (and vendors that drive it, like Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and Google) rather than traditional, disk-based media. Data centers in general, however, have their share of responsibility. The report claims data centers will consume 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity by 2020. This is more power than currently consumed by France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined. The report also claims that if global telecommunications and data centers were considered a country, it would rank fifth in the world in energy use in 2007.

However, companies using the cloud vary in their approaches. Yahoo, Facebook and Google have taken widely diverging approaches in how they meet their power and cooling needs. As the Enterprise IT Planet Green Blog notes, Facebook, is powering its new Oregon-based data center primarily on fossil fuel for generating electricity. Yahoo, in contrast, built a data center in New York that is 100 percent powered by renewable energy.

And that is the most key call to action in the report. Despite the negative connotations implied in the name, it is not an indictment against the cloud as a concept. Nor should it be read an indictment against the devices that the cloud powers -- that door is open and the horse is far from the barn. Rather, as Internetnews reports, it is about looking at the choices that must be made, "Will the cloud run on coal or renewable energy?"

The fact remains that most data centers are plugged into power grids fueled by coal. That must change, especially as one analyst put it several years ago, the data center is the symbol of 21st center business, much like the smoke stack was the symbol in the 20th Century. Data centers have no maxed out on size, but will need to figure out how to meet their ever-growing power demands.

Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch and Enterprise IT Planet. She has been covering virtualization since 2001, and is the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, published by Pearson in October 2009.

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