Cloud computing is making IT greener

Cloud providers are striking to reduce energy costs and carbon emissions with investments in new technology.

Cloud computing is becoming a catalyst for greener computing. It can reduce the amount of energy companies expend in IT, and the economics of running a large data center is driving providers to find innovative new ways to reduce energy costs.

My colleagues at ZDNET caught wind of Microsoft sponsored research, which determined that companies would save on direct energy costs by outsourcing IT to a cloud provider (such as its own Azure platform).

The study, conducted by IT consulting firm Accenture, found that small companies reaped the greatest benefit by moving their application office premises, reducing energy use and carbon emissions by as much as 90 percent. Large enterprises topped out at a still significant 30 percent.

That just quantifies what we already know: Small businesses have been buying much more computing muscle than they need, and today’s processors sop up more energy than their lower clocked predecessors. Let’s face it; most small business workflows don’t require bleeding edge hardware.

A large enterprise is more likely to maximize the utility that it gets from its infrastructure, and may even be running a private cloud. However, it would not operate at the same scale as a public cloud provider.

No business wants to a absorb customer’s cost (for energy and potentially carbon ), so cloud providers have an incentive to reduce their operating expenses and be become more energy efficient. Indeed, it is already happening among all of the industry's biggest players.

James Hamilton, vice president and distinguished engineer on the Amazon Web Services team, outlined the cost of datacenter operations (sans taxes), in a recent blog post. Not surprisingly, he concluded that power consumption “seems unreasonably high.”

“Power efficiency is highly leveraged when looking at overall data center costs, it plays an important role in environmental stewardship, and it is one of the areas where substantial gains continue to look quite attainable. As a consequence, this is where I spend a considerable amount of my time – perhaps the majority – but we have to remember that servers still dominate the overall capital cost,” he wrote.

Perhaps recognizing this, Google has invested heavily in wind power. Last month it announced that it would be funding the development of a behemoth wind farm that will span the east coast of the United States. It has also balked at proposed data center efficiency standards, claiming that they would relax the pace of innovation.

Microsoft is “committed to driving software and technology innovations that help people and organizations improve the environment, a spokesperson told me in October, citing sensitivities over its data center operations as cause for that opaque statement.

“Our goal is to reduce the impact of our operations and products, and to be a leader in environmental responsibility. The environmental sustainability commitment for our data centers is extensive,” the spokesperson added.

Salesforce is also taking action: It has invested in carbon offsets on behalf of its customers, and has focused on energy efficiency and sustainability in the data center at its DreamForce developer conferences.

If anything, competitive rivalry alone is enough will entice each of these companies to make their data centers as profitable as possible. There is also steady pressure to go green from outside environmental groups such as Greenpeace.

I anticipate further innovation in data center cooling, and I’d go as far as to say that renewable energy is required to scale compute grid power. Cloud providers recognize this challenge, and are working towards solutions that would not be possible if IT remained on premises.

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