Hey Greenpeace, the cloud (and tech giants behind it) will be greener

Greenpeace is telling us that cloud computing will lead to a big jump in greenhouse emissions. Your Apple iPad and late nights on Facebook (and Google and Yahoo) will destroy the planet. Time for the reality check.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Greenpeace is telling us that cloud computing will lead to a big jump in greenhouse emissions. Your Apple iPad and late nights on Facebook (and Google and Yahoo) will destroy the planet. The logic here is that these fancy shmancy data centers are all run by a coal powered grid.

I was going to stay out of this mix on Smart Planet, ZDNet and elsewhere, but there's such a need for a screaming reality check that I can't resist.

Let's look at some of the key points of the Greenpeace cloud report: 1. The cloud---and all of those servers---will cause climate change. What we really need is computing gear that doesn't use electric. Any ideas people? Are those crickets I hear. Here's Greenpeace's money---er CO2 graphic:

Reality check: Ok, data centers do use up a lot of energy, but contrary to the following Greenpeace assertion,  the cloud---even on its current cloud-happy path---helps (not hurts) matters. Greenpeace says:

With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy. For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That ‘somewhere’ is data centres - massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy. But decisions about how the cloud will be built out are being made by business leaders primarily concerned with quarterly profit statements and earnings for shareholders.

My problem: The cloud will be greener. Why? First, the evil "quarterly profit statements" is just what will drive efficiency. For Facebook, Google, IBM and others, data center efficiency goes right to the bottom line. Being green hits your electric bill. In addition, these cloud providers are just the types that will replace servers, which improve on power and performance all the time, on a rolling basis. Add it up and cloud providers aren't going to be keeping old efficient hardware around for long. They will also use every tool at their disposal---monitoring, virtualization and data center design---to cut energy use to bolster their profit.

Let's assume the cloud won't absorb much of this computing demand. Guess what that looks like? It's a green IT mess. Would you rather bet that cloud providers will be more energy efficient or go with the hundreds of thousands of data centers run by enterprises that can't keep up, hug servers and are still using single core processors? I'll take the cloud types all day. Simply put, the data demand will explode whether the cloud supplies the computing power or some ad hoc approach continues.

2. Coal powers these fancy cloud data centers. For this point, Greenpeace breaks out a nice informative chart:

In this chart, you'll find that these big data centers are powered by electric grids that are fired by coal. Why pick on the data center types here? The U.S. is coal fired. It's abundant and cheap. Your house, your toaster, your PC, your microwave and pretty much everything connected to the grid also runs on coal. You could strip out the cloud computing players and insert anything connected to the grid and make the same point. Now when we rev up wind farms, hit solar grid parity and roll out the nuclear plants everywhere (except your back yard of course) then you can call out folks that have facilities that run on coal.

3. Greenpeace says with great cloud power comes great responsibility. The report says:

Ultimately, if cloud providers want to provide a truly green and renewable cloud, they must use their power and influence to not only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also become involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation economy-wide, and place greater R&D into storage devices that will deliver electricity from renewable sources 24/7...

Companies like Facebook, Google, and other large players in the cloud computing market must advocate for policy change at the local, national and international levels to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does the supply of renewable energy.

Finally something we agree on. But, as noted before, I'd much rather bet with the cloud than against it.

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