Greenpeace Questions the Cloud’s Environmental Sustainability | TechWell

Greenpeace Questions the Cloud’s Environmental Sustainability

As the implementation of cloud computing and cloud storage continues to expand globally, a question popped up the other day that I’d never really thought of before. EarthTechling asked, “Is cloud computing and storage environmentally sustainable?”

It struck me because I’d never really thought of the cloud as being anything but environmentally sustainable. EarthTechling notes, "The defining feature of the cloud is the fact that instead of relying on local servers, it uses a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data."

Organizations that have converted to the cloud for any of its myriad uses have likely seen a sizeable reduction in both the hardware they no longer need to purchase and the significant electricity needed to power and cool those machines.

But that virtual server in your office is a very real and physical machine somewhere else. While your electricity bill got cheaper, someone else’s became more expensive. EarthTechling refers to a Greenpeace report:

The Greenpeace analysis showed that tech companies like Akamai and Yahoo! are the most environment-friendly while companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft each rely heavily on power from fossil fuels. Cloud computing is almost directly responsible for the carbon intensity increase at Apple, which gets 60 percent of its power from coal.

Last year, a New York Times report raised a lot of eyebrows when it brought to light that worldwide, “digital warehouses use about thirty billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of thirty nuclear power plants.” To the credit of companies like Google, one of cloud computing’s biggest players, strides are being taken to make its data centers more energy efficient.

While the transfer to more energy-efficient standards at the nation’s largest data centers may be taking longer than Greenpeace and other environmentalists would like, there are other positive impacts that have been made by organizations adopting cloud services. Rob Atkinson at The Energy Collective recently put together an impressive resume of cloud contributions that often go unrecognized:

For example, streaming video, mobile technology, and high-speed broadband have increased opportunities for telecommuting, telemedicine, and virtual meetings, reducing carbon-intensive auto and air travel. In addition, new data analytics technologies, such as Hadoop, allow us to condense and analyze vast amounts of information more quickly than ever before, which reduces data center operation and energy use. … Finally, email, mobile technology and cloud computing have significantly reduced the use of paper in all aspects of society.

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