March 9, 2020

Cloud computing endangering the environment?

Cloud computing is a true virtual computing environment whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on-demand, like a public utility. It refers to services, applications and data storage delivered online through powerful file servers. Because of their scalability and “pay as you need” pricing modell, they tend to be easily adopted not onyl by start-ups but also by large state agencies.

But let’s stop a second now and analyze the actual impact of on the environment.

The IT research firm Gartner Invest attempted at calculating the number of computers used by Google … and it ended up by estimating that Google’s data centres contain nearly a million servers (or the equivalent of about 3 million computers), each drawing about 1 kilowatt of electricity and so every hour Google burns through 1 million kilowatt-hours. So you get the idea … Now, by moving information to the cloud means that a company would be reducing its environmental impact by saving on local energy usage, travel & office costs while also reducing its direct impact on the environment etc. The big question is though, is the cloud service provider creating an equal or greater in supplying these services? This is a crucial question, and the answer might be or not be in favor of using this new “innovation”.

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Through hardware centralization and IT process optimization accompanied by the “use only what you need” policy, the cloud might appear at a first glance as an optimal green solution. However, what the cloud supporters tend to ignore, is that getting cheap instant access to computing facilities without the need to own your own hardware or pay for service packages that you might never use entirely, this new facility would open the gates of virtual computing to almost any citizen on the Planet. A great development you would say, but wait! What would that mean in numbers? Two examples should be enough to help you get an idea of the real implications: just imagine that half of China’s and India’s population suddenly gain cheap access to a “virtual computer”, access which would have been denied to them before, because of financial issues related to hardware costs for example. An increased demand would logically translate into the necessity to expand the cloud facilities far beyond what we might imagine right now. And the huge issue might be not as much the fact that extended population groups would suddenly gain and demand access to the new facilities, but the speed to which that would actually happen. It’s like witnessing a chain reaction which will eventually lead to a nuclear explosion.

With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy, in times when we should actually do all we can to reduce the energy consumption and protect the environment. Greenpeace estimates that the energy consumed by the main components of cloud-based computing, would triple between 2020 and 2020. And as I do not see myself giving up my laptop for the benefit of a “virtually, not personally controlled hosted storage facility”, even if I might choose to use the cloud for certain projects, it only means that the cloud energy consumption would actually add up to that what I use today and not replace it. Even if we assume a let’s say 20% decrease in “classical” computer usage over the next 3 years to the benefit of the cloud, this would certainly not be enough to compensate for the huge increase in energy consumption on the side of the cloud.

On the other side, what if let’s say we will reach a point when we will have thousand servers running BUT underutilized, what than? The answer is easy: the power usage would be significantly higher. Through hardware optimization one may use 80 percent less energy per unit, but having 1,000 percent more capacity, means in the end that you are actually using more, not less energy.

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An other important aspect is that whereas it is true that big Internet companies are working hard to improve their energy efficiency, and some innovative ways to address green issues were already translated into reality (see Finland’s example who’s build a system to allow them using heat generated within such data centres to heat homes in the city), these are rather isolated cases and even Greenpeace argues that companies promoting will still choose to locate data centers where it makes the most business sense for them, even if that means using “dirty”, fossil power from coal-fired plants.

A realistic conclusion is that given the fact that innovation and green initiatives would not follow at the same rapid pace as the increase in demand for using facilities, we will witness over the next few years a quick expansion of these services accompanied by an explosive increase in energy consumption, with obvious negative impact over the environment.

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