Researchers Agree: Cloud Computing Is Greenest Choice

Data centers are notorious energy pigs. Can cloud computing be the cure? Yes, according to a growing body of research.

A new study released by Pike Research shows that if businesses were to adopt cloud computing instead of building out their own data centers, by 2020 they could cut data center energy consumption worldwide by one-third over 2010's levels. Given that emissions from data centers worldwide is approaching the carbon dioxide emissions of the country of Argentina, that reduction is significant.

The report says: “Pike Research forecasts that data centers will consume 139.8 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2020, a reduction of 1% from 201.8 TWh in 2010. This also represents a significant decrease from the 226.4 TWh that would be consumed by data centers in the firm’s [business as usual] scenario. The reduction will drive total data center energy expenditures down from $23.3 billion in 2010 to $16.0 billion in 2020, as well as causing a 28% reduction in [greenhouse gas] (GHG) emissions from 2010 levels,” the report says.

On the other hand, this report seems to directly contradict one released in October by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. Those guys found that cloud computing can actually use more energy than traditional computing in some cases. They said most research on the green-ness of the cloud fails to take into account the energy used to send the data to the user, compared to the energy consumed by a PC or server to store it locally. The energy used for transport and switching can be a “significant percentage of total energy consumption in cloud computing,” [Link, registration required.]

The worst offenders are those that send large data sets to and from the cloud, such as “rent a computer” tasks performed by say, Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). In those cases, the energy savings of sharing the cloud infrastructure could be outweighed by the energy used to transport. When large amounts of data is involved, closer is greener.

Data centers pour forth nearly as much carbon dioxide as all of Argentina.

But as dire as that sounds, the Melbourne researchers concluded that in most cases, cloud tasks do not overly tax the transport system and remain the greenest choice. Office documents, even from freebie services like Google Docs, can be plenty green because the screen refresh rate is extremely low. The more users that share a data center infrastructure, the less energy used per person and so Internet cloud services come out ahead of most fat-client tasks, even when factoring in the energy consumed in transport.

When a business chooses an Internet cloud services, it is making a greener choice even than using a “private” cloud, where the data center uses virtualization to increase application density on servers and storage, the Melbourne crew conclude.

For those concerned enough about the environment to change their behavior, cloud computing is an obvious choice. Yet for many a business, saving wattage, or even saving money, hasn't made them move to the cloud, yet. Fears about the safety of their data is preventing them, according to IBM's 2010 Global IT Risk Study of 560 IT managers. It found 77 percent of respondents believe that the cloud creates privacy issues; 50 percent worry that data will be hacked or lost; and 23 percent worry that the cloud will give hackers new ways to breach the corporate network.

Smaller businesses, may be even further behind adoption, even for services that they desperately need, according to a survey of 700 small businesses by Lenovo and AMD. Half of respondents say they backup data in hodge-podge methods, thumb drives or CD Drives. While 43 percent said they were familiar with cloud computing, only 13 percent are using it for online storage and backups.

But these fears and bad habits should be short lived as cloud providers improve security and as more consumers use smartphones, tablets and network computers. More reliance on the cloud for every day computing tasks is already becoming commonplace. Cheaper, greener computing power will grow irresistible to businesses, too.

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