Greenpeace recently called out Apple, Amazon and Microsoft as the worst offenders for failing to live up to the perceived “green” reputation of cloud computing. On the other hand, the environmental advocacy organization applauded the more sustainable efforts of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Akamai, among others. Noting that data centers can consume as much as 180,000 homes’ worth of energy, the report highlighted the need for more transparency and a concerted effort to help new computing technologies truly live up to their clean energy potential.
Apple quickly shot back, citing its new green data center constructions and improved energy efficiency policies. Clearly, being “clean and green” is a major branding concern for today’s biggest cloud computing giants (who might find it increasingly difficult to preserve that image in the face of smaller, more agile competitors using innovative technology). Part of the problem is, claims about green cloud computing are vague and poorly understood to begin with. As Jeff Norman recently noted in CloudTweaks, while many adopters see virtualized servers and cloud storage as better for the environment, there’s little in the way of hard evidence to prove it.
However, there are some compelling cases for the cloud’s green potential. For example, AMD CTO Don Newell writes in Computerworld that it’s an inherent interest of cloud providers to maximize energy efficiency and therefore keep application performance high. Plus, strategic cloud data center clustering means that infrastructure centers can be located in geographies where green energy production is most feasible (for example, in cold climates and near bodies of water).
There are also more indirect environmental benefits from cloud computing. Joe McKendrick points out in Forbes that e-commerce, mobile technology and the online economy have reduced the need for physical stores, physical travel and physical resources – and the rise of cloud computing can only increase these effects. In fact, a Carbon Disclosure Project report in 2011 claimed that by 2020, corporate cloud adopters could save as much as $12.3 billion in energy costs every year. Even solutions as simple as cloud based email result in energy savings because of greater data center efficiency, as Google is keen to point out.
While there is no use in “greenwashing” cloud computing’s ability to create sustainable business practices, it is clear that the adoption of IaaS, virtualization and SaaS holds much potential for offsetting the environmental impact of computing. The real benefits are probably yet to be seen, but as cloud innovation continues to improve the ratio of energy consumption to computing power, our society which is now totally dependent on data just might find a cleaner way of dealing with it.