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Greenpeace attacks Cloud Computing with blatantly one sided argument.

Let me start this article off by saying that I am all for the 'green' movement. If we as a society can reduce what we consume, reuse as much as possible and recycle rather than throw away, I believe we will be much better off than the alternative. If we can reduce global emissions across the board and lean more heavily on renewable energy, all the better. What I don't agree with, however, is attacking certain industries with only half of the story. It's one thing if it was due to ignorance and a complete different monster if it was done intentionally. I'm not going to cast judgment as to which one it is, but without a doubt it is one of the two and I'll leave it to you to decide for yourselves. By the way, I am referring to the Greenpeace report cited at the end of the article. Please look there if you want more information.

One of the areas I focus on is cloud computing which, with virtualization at the core, increases efficiency by orders of magnitude. One of the core concepts of cloud computing is multi-tenancy, which means that multiple systems (belonging to different people or companies) can reside within the same larger cloud infrastructure. The concept is similar to a 24 hour gym membership. You become a member and pay a cost so that you can use the equipment in the gym. The gym banks on the fact that not every member will be in the gym at the same time using the same piece of equipment, and as a member, you do not need to purchase all of the equipment in the gym and have it sit idle 23 out of the 24 hours in a day. The gym is providing a multi-tenant service and you are consuming it.

In the example above, lets examine a few things. Because you are able to use the equipment in the gym when you need it, you do not need to purchase all of that equipment and have it sit around idle most of the time. This is highly efficient in terms of getting use out of the equipment at the lowest cost. This also prevents the amassing of large amounts of equipment, which requires metal, plastic and maybe electricity, in every gym members' home. You also prevent the issue of having to recycle or dispose of that massive amount of equipment when it hits end of life.

Now, I can take that example and look at it through a monocle. By setting up a 24 hour gym, I now have gym lights, air conditioning, TVs and other electronic equipment on 24 hours a day instead of 1 hour a day as a member would have used at home. What is the problem with that view? I've increased electric consumption therefore increasing carbon footprint if that electricity comes from a coal power plant. I must be doing something terrible for the environment. Let's roll that example forward. Let's say as I add membership, I am able to offer lower cost memberships. As a result my memberships start to rise and I have to build more 24 hour gyms. The problem has now exacerbated itself. I am now ever increasing my carbon footprint as I grow to accommodate more business. My projected energy needs are off the chart and I am putting more pollutants into the air, therefore 24 hour gyms are a serious problem that need to be dealt with in terms of not being 'green.'

Hopefully by now, you've see the flaw in that argument. Much like the gym example, cloud computing is growing at a phenomenal rate and using ever increasing energy resources as it does so. Here's the rub. As individuals and businesses jump onto my cloud, they are forgoing purchasing individual servers that will reside within their data centers and other facilities. By forgoing those purchases, they are also not incurring the massive power and cooling bills associated with them (read electricity consumption.) They are also not taking in more metal, plastic, silicon, etc., for each server that will have to be dealt with when the server reaches end of life. Furthermore, because the cloud is multi-tenant, several individuals or businesses can utilizes the resources of a single server. Consolidation ratios get pretty high at this rate. I am essentially cutting overall electricity (and thus carbon emissions) consumption as I move people to the cloud. In addition, the cooling systems in my new cloud data centers are much more robust and efficient than at the individual client sites. What more efficiency can you ask for at the cloud level?

Now that I've bored you with the technical explanation of how cloud computing is actually REDUCING electricity consumption (and this carbon emissions) overall, let me delve into some additional corollary benefits. Because most of the computing power of applications is now done in the cloud, the client devices used to access the cloud (like the iPad or netbooks) require far less energy to operate. They do not put out as much heat and they are smaller and lighter than ever before. Also, as more and more applications are shifted to the cloud, more people can work from home. This incurs less carbon emissions as they are not driving to work every day to accomplish the same tasks. (Man I bet you didn't see that one coming!)

The bottom line is that cloud computing is revolutionizing the IT industry (and business at large) while allowing more work to get done per unit of energy used. You have to look at 'the whole view' to understand that. Greenpeace, I'm sorry to harpoon your inflatable raft, but you have to look are more variables when constructing an argument. I would be happy to see an expanded report showing all of the things I pointed out in this article. I will agree with one thing Greenpeace points out: we need to source more energy from renewable sources. If we can achieve 100% renewable energy use with cloud computing, we have hit the capstone in green IT efficiency.

There are a few things to take away from this article. First, throwing a plethora of numeric figures while analyzing only one side of an argument does not do much in the way of building credibility. More importantly, you better be 100% sure that you understand a technology and the implications of that technology before you go and attack it. In this modern area of instant information dissemination, publishing an article to prove a point can be a double-edged sword. If you are right on target, you will impact people in a positive way. If you are not, you will get embarrassed pretty quickly.
For reference, the Greenpeace report is available here: http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/press-center/reports4/make-it-green-cloud-computing

2 comments:

  1. it's more than reducing energy...it's reducing the use of raw materials, the indirect energy and pollutants to process those materials into useable computer parts, it's not destroying ecosystems to harvest those raw materials, it's reducing waste streams...cloud computing is essentially a multi-pronged environmental mitigation strategy

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  2. Well, that's more like looking at the nice side of the story ...
    Imagine this scenario: we will at a certain moment reach a point when we will have thousand servers running BUT underutilized! Yes, very probable ... The energy usage would be significantly higher and even though hardware optimization may lead to using 80 percent less energy per unit, having 1,000 percent more capacity, eventually means that you are definitly using more, not less energy.
    Further point to be considered (blaim human nature and love for $$$ if you want): also companies promoting cloud computing will mlost probably choose to locate data centers where it makes the most business sense for them, even if that means using “dirty”, fossil power from coal-fired plants. How to solve that one?

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