Cloud computing energy consumption is a source of much debate. On one side, some see a massive new form of industrialization gobbling up resources; with large cloud and social networking sites consuming megawatts of power to feed insatiable computing needs.

Greenpeace called attention to the growing, power-hungry data center footprint, citing estimates that cloud computer sites could consume up to 622.6 billion kWh (kilowatts per hour) of power.  Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D., consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, estimates that the cloud is already responsible for 1-2% of the world’s electricity use.

On the other hand, there is also a view that cloud adoption, by moving companies to share pooled resources and facilities, is helping to contain what could be relentless, viral growth of duplicate data centers across every enterprise. Two recent industry-funded studies make the case for cloud as energy-saver.

A report issued this summer by the Carbon Disclosure Project, supported by AT&T, finds that a company that adopts cloud computing can reduce its energy consumption, lower its carbon emissions and decrease its capital expenditure on IT resources while improving operational efficiency. By 2020, the group estimates, large US companies that use cloud computing can achieve annual energy savings of $12.3 billion and annual carbon reductions equivalent to 200 million barrels of oil.

In another study released at the end of last year, Accenture, Microsoft and WSP Environment and Energy estimated that that a 100-person company with applications deployed in the cloud can reduce energy consumption and emissions by more than 90 percent.

Part of the challenge is the complexity of measuring all this as sometimes, consumption is shifted, rather than moderated. “If you’re just looking at overall power consumption, in some ways cloud computing has pushed consumption up overall, on a per-unit-of-valuable-work basis,” says John Engates, CTO of Rackspace. Engates believes that many of the groups that are warning about data center power consumption may be taking too narrow of a view and the efficiencies and innovation that computing has delivered back to the economy. For example, he illustrates, computing has delivered significant productivity increases in the agricultural sector.

Koomey, who has also led studies on data center power consumption with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said as much at in the prelude of a landmark 2007 study that calculated the scope of the great energy drain by data centers in the first half of the last decade (gulping down about 45 billion kilowatts per hour – equivalent to the amount of power used by the entire state of Mississippi in 2005). He indicated that his study “only assesses the direct electricity used by servers and associated infrastructure equipment. It does not attempt to estimate the effect of structural changes in the economy enabled by increased use of information technology, which in many cases can be substantial.”

Yes, the energy consumption of our rapidly expanding cloud services needs to be managed. But it would be worth it to see more studies on the hidden green benefits the online economy is delivering.

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