By Artie Pesh-Imam
Every day, dozens of start-ups launch on Amazon Web Services. With offerings such as Coursera and Kahn Academy, the cloud is also entering the classroom. It’s a part of our everyday lives, and it’s here to stay. But how green is it? At first glance, it seems like a great idea. Rather than each service provisioning numerous servers, you can buy resources on a shared machine. Like carpooling, it just feels more efficient — but is it?
One important thing to understand about the cloud is what it actually looks like. A cloud is a massive set of computers jammed into a building. Traditionally, it’s been important to regulate the temperatures in these buildings. If the environment gets too hot, then it’s possible for the computers to be damaged. So, a big portion of the environmental cost has been keeping the temperature far below what is comfortable for a person. The other main factor is simply powering the machines.
The first challenge in answering the question of how green is the cloud is how to measure it. Peoplesoft has an interesting idea on this. As detailed here, they propose a metric of carbon per transaction. This metric definitely seems like a worthy calculation, but it seems rather opaque to the users of cloud services. For example, how can a given start-up calculate its carbon per transaction, and what it would be in a traditional server set-up? Additionally, how can consumers get access to this information in a useful way? I do think there’s validity with the metric, but the ability for people to gain access to that metric remains too difficult.
Another important consideration is how cloud providers power their clouds. Earlier this year, Greenpeace criticized Apple, Microsoft and Amazon for relying on coal for power. Apple has responded with a goal stating that all their data centers will run on 100 percent renewable power. Doing a little bit of research, it’s easy to understand how Apple is planning to power its cloud data centers, but not as clear for Amazon and Microsoft. The simple fact that it is hard to gather this information is another indication of the overall opacity that both business and individual consumers face when buying cloud services. It is simply not possible to make a truly “green-informed” decision when choosing between the larger cloud service providers.
While there clearly needs to be improvement with making environmental impact data available, there is a lot of hope for the future. Making services greener is a much simpler problem when everything is consolidated. Apple’s goal of making its cloud powered completely by renewable sources should also help bring the rest of the industry closer to that goal. I do hope that consumers pressure cloud service providers to provide the data to make informed decisions. If all this happens, I do believe that the cloud can provide computing with minimal impact to the environment.