Cleaning the cloud to reduce environmental impact

Rapid growth of cloud technology has been accompanied by vast energy demands and concerns about its associated environmental impact, as Flemmich Webb reports


Companies are increasingly outsourcing IT functions to external data centres, either through collocation, where they have their own infrastructure offsite, or through the cloud where they have shared access to storage and software – or a mix of both.

It’s a rapidly expanding sector. Analysts estimate that the global cloud market will be worth $180 billion by the end of 2015. This expansion will be driven by an increase in the number of internet users – by 2017 an estimated 3.6 billion people will be online, up from 2.3 billion in 2012 – with video and audio streaming expected to make up the bulk of increased activity.

This has implications for global carbon emissions and energy use. While the outsourcing of computing services can decarbonise business operations, it also drives up data centres’ energy use and emissions. Data centres can be vast and energy hungry. The bigger ones are the equivalent of about four football pitches in size, and can require 10-20 megawatts of electricity to power and cool them.

The Climate Group’s recent SMARTer 2020 report predicts that data-centre energy use will increase by 81 per cent up to 2020, which would make it the fastest growing part of the international IT sector’s energy footprint, which is already 2 per cent of global emissions.

Given the world is trying to decarbonise, how data centres are powered and cooled has moved steadily up corporate and regulator agendas.

Significantly, a climate change agreement (CCA) has recently been negotiated for data centres in the UK. Under the CCA, data-centre operators have to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in non-IT energy consumption between 2011 and 2020 through improved energy efficiency. This is a formal recognition by the government that the sector is now large and mature enough to contribute to cutting UK carbon emissions. If companies achieve the targets, they pay lower or even no carbon taxes, notably the climate change levy and the carbon reduction commitment.

Energy-efficiency concerns are often more to do with reducing costs than environmental impacts

Pressure to improve efficiency is also coming from data-centre customers, though energy-efficiency concerns are often more to do with reducing costs than environmental impacts.

Not always though. “There are some larger clients, and in particular the public sector, that do take account of our green credentials,” says Hugh Gillen, director of data centre and cloud at Onyx Group, which runs five data centres, all in the UK. “The majority of tenders we respond to now have mandatory requirements regards energy efficient initiatives – it’s definitely coming into the mainstream more and more.”

INVESTING IN RENEWABLES

Some companies that own and use data centres – Apple, Facebook and Google, for example – have not only invested in improving the efficiency of their facilities, but are also committed to powering them with renewable energy.

Greenpeace, in its recent Clicking Clean report, noted that six major cloud brands – Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace and Salesforce – have committed to powering data centers with 100 per cent renewable energy, something it is calling for across the sector.

Often, this means locating data centres in places where there is a ready supply of renewable power. For instance, Iceland-based GreenQloud is setting up its first data centre in the United States near Seattle because the utility company there sources 95 per cent of its energy from hydropower. Last year, Facebook built its first major data centre outside the US at Lulea in Sweden. It, too, is powered by hydroelectricity and benefits from the cooling effects of the sub-arctic climate.

This is not often practical though. “There are some of our customers that are interested in renewables, but typically in Europe there’s not generally widely available renewable energy at commercially compelling rates,” says James Tyler, chief commercial officer at TelecityGroup, which runs 39 data centres across Europe. “So the conversations we typically have are about energy efficiency as opposed to renewable energy supply.”

It’s because data centres are constantly investing in the latest data-infrastructure management, software and power-management technology to improve efficiency and remain competitive that outsourcing data services can often be more efficient and a lower-carbon option than keeping IT functions in-house.

That said, the IT sector and data-centre operators will need to carry out a tricky balancing act. Despite the fact that many of their products and services enable others to reduce carbon emissions and energy use, rapidly increasing demand for them could lead to a net carbon and energy-use gain. Constantly improving energy efficiency and renewable energy sourcing where possible will be key to ensuring this doesn’t happen.