One of the big advantages of the 'cloud' has always been its environmental credentials, but so far the industry has been slow to get a grip on them. Now Google is having a go, says Ian Scales.
I think the problem is all down to the photographic evidence. Because data centres (the physical embodiment of the abstraction we call cloud) LOOK so power-hungry, to cast them - or rather the work they do - as a 'good' green thing is an uphill struggle, almost counter-intuitive.
About 10 years ago, when the first giant data centres were built they tended to attract bad green publicity rather than good. Power companies warned that they were power-gobblers and would demand power infrastructure upgrades... perhaps, it was suggested, they should be sited near to power sources to reduce their impact? Not good from a PR point of view.
And certainly the first generation (as it were) WAS big on electricity consumption: what with high-powered servers generating lots of heat and mandating even more power-hungry cooling equipment. They looked like an environmental disaster and they were often cast as such.
The facts, of course, were different. Data centres and their usage have both direct and secondary power consumption benefits. Get a whole lot of IT into one spot and manage it properly and you can reduce the amount of energy used as opposed to what would have been used were the same IT scattered about in offices.
But the big data centre (or cloud) advantage is efficiency and scale. Once in that central location a huge blob of IT shared via the network by thousands (or millions) of users and application can be made to be many times more efficient than the distributed, disaggregated alternative.
In a nutshell, all the advantages of scale and aggregation that lead companies to offer and use Cloud infrastructure and services from a straight IT and business benefit point of view also reduce - almost as a by-product - power consumption. If it's doing the first, it's already doing the second.
Getting this message out there is tough, but Google (not without ulterior motive of course) has been having a go at it and has rounded up a cluster of research reports to lend some oomph.
It says it's worked out that using Gmail as an alternative to conventional local mail servers can be up to 80 times more power-efficient than running any sort of in-house email.
"This is because cloud-based services are typically housed in highly efficient data centers that operate at higher server utilization rates and use hardware and software that’s built specifically for the services they provide—conditions that small businesses are rarely able to create on their own," says the Google blog.
YouTube comes out smelling good too: "The servers needed to play one minute of YouTube consume about 0.0002 kWh of energy. To put that in perspective, it takes about eight seconds for the human body to burn off that same amount. You’d have to watch YouTube for three straight days for our servers to consume the amount of energy required to manufacture, package and ship a single DVD."
Google's researchers also worked out that a year's Gmail is way greener than sending a single message in a bottle (once you calculate the environmental toll wrought by the bottle and the wine). Google didn't factor in the paper, the ink and
the arm-power needed to heft the thing beyond the breaker-line, but no doubt that could have been roped in if required.
Photo by John Fielding, via Wikimedia Commons
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