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Green issues cast grey skies over cloud computing

New research by WSP Environment & Energy and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has found that cloud computing is not always the most energy and carbon efficient IT solution for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs.)

Since its inception, cloud computing has been considered to be a more sustainable alternative to on-site server rooms, offering improved energy efficiency and a reduced carbon footprint. However the US study, which examined five different set ups and tested them using best practice, average and worst case conditions, found that a number of different factors come into play that can impact on the overall energy and carbon efficiency.

The study found that while running a computer application in the cloud is generally more energy and carbon efficient than a server room, there are three key questions to ask in deciding which is the greenest option:

• The carbon emission factor of the electricity used  Data centres can be based just about anywhere in the world, and the amount of carbon emitted for each unit of electricity varies widely from country to country.

• The energy efficiency of the data centre or the server room  Usually measured in terms of power usage effectiveness (PUE) for data centres.

• How much the equipment is used  Data centres running at low capacities aren’t nearly as efficient as those fully used.  This is critical as PUE takes little consideration of usage rates.

David Symons, Director of WSP Environment & Energy, said: “This is a really important piece of research for companies wanting to reduce their emissions and become more energy efficient.   There are many reasons for moving to cloud computing, but a company choosing to do so for pure energy efficiency reasons needs to look closely at their whole IT set up as well as those of third party offerings. Not all clouds are created equal.  An on-site server room that is run with energy efficiency best practices may be a greener alternative to a ‘brown cloud’.”

Josh Whitney at WSP and the report’s lead author, continued: “We realised it was critical to assess the implications of moving to the cloud for SMEs.  In the US, smaller server rooms and closets are responsible for approximately half the installed server base and they are typically managed less efficiently than larger data centres, so their impact is considerable.”

Pierre Delforge, Project Manager with NDRC who commissioned the research, said:  “SMEs looking to improve the sustainability of their operations should ask cloud service providers for full disclosure of the carbon efficiency of the services they provide and consider all the key variables that contribute to the efficiency of their IT operations.”

You can download a copy of the report, as a 2Mb PDF, here NRDC-WSP_Cloud_Computing

COMMENT: So here’s the rub… cloud maybe be commercially attractive but it is not always as green as it may at first seem. There again there are some law firm partners who would probably personally throttle with their own bare hands the last panda remaining on Earth if they thought it would improve their PEP.