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Mark Burns

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Not a Cloud in the Sky

Posted: 05/ 1/2012 12:59 pm

This piece has been cross-posted from MomsCleanAirForce.org

You snap a photo -- okay, more like 27 photos -- of your three-year old blowing out the candles on her birthday cake. You upload them to Picasa or Facebook, or drag them into Dropbox. Question: Where do those photos actually reside? Answer: "The Cloud." Right? Anytime, anywhere, you can reach into the cloud with whatever iGadget you have and pluck one of those photos. They're just floating around up there, waiting for you. Very convenient. And "green." Isn't it?

Down to Earth

Of course the truth is, those photos -- along with millions of Youtube videos, emails, tax returns, interactive games, orthopedic x-rays, Tweets, unfinished novels and whatever else we keep creating, sending, receiving and not deleting, i.e., billions of files -- are all stored on massive servers in huge data centers that occupy actual real estate on the planet, in locations all around the world. And as our insatiable appetite for instant access to all of our info-stuff expands, the number of such data centers is expanding, exponentially. And these facilities all need power. Electricity. Lots of it.

The Cloud Isn't Green

Yes, the cloud needs to be plugged in. It also needs to be cooled because all those servers generate a lot of heat. Cooling that heat consumes enormous amounts of electricity, too.

So where do these clouds get their electricity?

Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog organization, recently published a provocative 50-page report -- "How Clean is Your Cloud?" -- that helps answer that question. It looks at the sources of power that 14 global Information Technology (IT) giants (almost all of them household names) employ to run their data centers throughout the world. It cites three of the largest expanding-cloud companies -- Amazon, Apple and Microsoft -- as relying "heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds." It scores Apple as leading all others with 55 percent of its power usage coming from coal-generated electricity.

The report credits Yahoo! and Google for their efforts in making access to renewable energy a priority as they expand their clouds. They receive a "Clean Energy Index" of 56 percent and 39 percent respectively. (The lowest CEI goes to Oracle at 7.1 percent.)

Location, Location, Location

The report also points out that when a company chooses a location for a cloud, it's also choosing the kind of electricity it will use -- for a long time to come. If a new cloud can only plug into a coal-generated electricity grid, it helps perpetuate a dirty power source that creates more pollution. Conversely, if an 800-million-user mega-cloud chooses a location-based on its access to a hydroelectric grid, as Facebook has in Lulea, Sweden, then that commitment supports and sustains renewable energy for a long time to come. Yahoo! used that reasoning to build in Lockport, New York, where it benefits not only from the hydroelectric grid, but also from the winds off Lake Ontario that cool its servers, further reducing electricity consumption. Some cloud companies are also signing long-term contracts to buy renewable electricity, thereby nourishing the market for clean power sources.

While some of the companies mentioned in the report may take issue with Greenpeace's figures and analysis, there is no dispute that this giant sector of the technology universe is making choices that will continue to have enormous impact on the environment and the market for renewable energy well into the future. Kudos to Greenpeace for chiding and encouraging the IT companies to act responsibly.

Meanwhile, we all might want to consider just how much of the billions of megabytes we generate everyday with our toys is really worth the electricity and environmental stress needed to save it on a server in, say, Council Bluffs, Iowa. In the material world, they have a name for people who can't decide what to keep and what to throw out: "pack rats."

 
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