Is cloud computing really greener or are we just passing the buck?

For the most part, the industry folks that I interview -- not necessarily for posts in this blog -- hold the view that technology has some positive role to play in reducing humankind's impact on the environment. Yay for videoconferencing, they declare, because it cuts down on business travel!

For the most part, the industry folks that I interview -- not necessarily for posts in this blog -- hold the view that technology has some positive role to play in reducing humankind's impact on the environment. Yay for videoconferencing, they declare, because it cuts down on business travel! Or, at the very least, they trumpet the fact that it can help companies run more efficiently so that their impact is smaller. But below the surface, I've begun wondering whether or not technology sometimes simply displaces the impact. In other words, I think in some cases we might just be passing the buck.

I'm not the only one wondering this. That same sentiment was voiced during a panel about Green ICT (information and communications technology) I attended last Friday at the BSR Conference 2010, a gathering of corporate and non-profit executives with an interest in sustainability issues and strategy. Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, a British York think tank says when a company encourages telecommuting to save energy and transportation costs, for example, often the costs associated with heating or cooling the person's home office and (of course) keeping the lights and the electricity burning are conveniently overlooked.

So, one of the things that has really got me going right now is the whole cloud computing movement and what the transition over the next few years could mean for corporate energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Microsoft just released research last week suggesting a dramatic reduction, if you use several of its applications in a cloud configuration. That makes all sorts of sense to me, because Microsoft can focus on running a smaller number of mega data centers more efficiently than lots of different companies running lots of smaller data centers.

But what happens to all the servers and equipment from the data center you are shutting down? Are those servers reused elsewhere? Do they enter the electronic waste stream? And, who is scrutinizing the energy sourcing decisions of the cloud service providers? Are they really focusing on those choices, like Microsoft is doing in Chicago, or are they making tradeoffs, as is the case with Facebook?

I recently spoke with a company that is hoping to play a role in answering those questions, at least among the telecommunications sector, which is a notorious user of electricity.

That company, Trade Wings of Portsmouth, N.H., is a supply chain management service provider for the telecommunications and networking industry. Todd Adelman, founder and CEO of Trade Wings, says this company's customers typically aren't able to find a reuse for their older routers, switches, base stations, antennas and such. "This stuff just sits there incurring transportation and storage costs," he says. "We call this a stranded asset."

Trade Wings works with the largest networking OEMs in the world to help ameliorate this, with a specific focus on aiding 900 or so carriers around the world. These are probably the ones that will become the cloud service providers, so you can bet that many are exploring upgrades, especially as the 4G movement evolves. In any case, Trade Wings takes that older equipment and focuses first on finding reuses, either in emerging markets such as Africa, or gives this technology a second life as spare or repair equipment. It has a software platform that helps it do this more efficiently than most of the OEMs can do it themselves.

Just last week, Trade Wings scored a deal with Telenor, which is a mobile network operator in Norway. Telenor is migrating entirely to an IP-base dplatform, which means that it will be decommissioning "thousands" of multi-vendor assets. Here's why Telenor decided to work with Trade Wings:

"Corporate responsibility is a central component of our operational philosophy. As our industry confronts rising concerns over electronic waste and carbon emissions, our relationship with Trade Wings will enable us to further extend our commitment to reduce material consumption and transportation events by promoting reuse, and when necessary, disposing of equipment in a safe, environmentally responsible manner."

If you want to read more about this topic and how it might apply to your own company's data center assets, Trade Wings has created a white paper (although you will have to register to receive it).

As your business explores its own data center strategy, how much have you though about where those assets will go? If you can't answer that question, your strategy might not be as green as you think.