Just how green is cloud computing?


Photo credit tipiro

Cloud computing may not be as Green as you think.

I mentioned previously that I gave a keynote presentation at the Green IT Summit in Dublin last week.

In the question and answers session after the talk, Sean Baker asked about cloud computing and whether I thought companies using cloud computing weren’t simply outsourcing their emissions.

As Gordon Smith picked up in a piece for, I replied that I

was ?quite sceptical? about this issue. ?None of the cloud providers such as Amazon, Microsoft or IBM are publishing metrics at all. Intuitively you have to think that because you?re outsourcing that to someone of that scale that they?re being more efficient but we?ve no way of knowing. Frankly, that?s worrisome. I don?t know why they?re not publishing it and I wish they would,?

This is no sudden realisation on my part. In fact, I have been concerned about Cloud Computing’s Green credentials for some time now as you can see from a series of Tweets (here, here and here, for instance) I posted on this issue in early to mid 2009.

It is vital that cloud providers start publishing their energy metrics for a number of reasons. For one, it is a competitive differentiator. But perhaps more importantly, in the absence of any provider numbers, one has to start wondering if cloud computing is in fact Green at all.

IBM, for example, are not known for being shy when given an opportunity to talk up their Green initiatives. However, on cloud, they are conspicuously silent. The same is true for Amazon, Microsoft, SalesForce and Google.

I’m not sure why cloud providers are not publishing their energy metrics but if I had to guess I would say it is related to concerns around competitive intelligence. However this is not a sustainable position (if you’ll pardon the pun).

As the regulatory landscape around emissions reporting alters and as organisations RFP’s are tending to demand more details on emissions, cloud providers who refuse to provide energy-related numbers will find themselves increasingly marginalised.

So is cloud computing Green?

I put that question toSimon Wardley, cloud strategist for Canonical in this video I recorded with him last year and he said no, cloud computing is very definitely not Green.

To be honest, until cloud providers start becoming more transparent around their utilisation and consumption numbers there is really no way of knowing whether cloud computing is in any way Green at all.

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  1. says

    It’s reasonable to assume, until proven otherwise, that ‘cloud computing’ is not very energy-efficient at all. Virtualisation can be, of course, but ‘cloud computing’ tends to entail keeping many computers running (albeit in low power mode), doing nothing, waiting for someone to use them. I can’t really see how it would usually be more energy-efficient for most applications.

  2. says

    It’s not that cloud computing is or isn’t green. The real problem is that we have no easy way to prove or dis-prove it other than a gut feeling . In most cases the cloud is probably more environmentally friendly compared to that of under-utilized data center alternatives.

    So is cloud computing green-er than the thousands of servers sitting idle in data centers our the globe? Probably. Is it green-er than turning off your computing and doing nothing, probably not.

  3. says

    Save yourself 10 minutes: The argument in the video goes “It’s not green because more people will use it to do more stuff which will over-compensate for the savings” rather than “It’s less green than dedicated servers or VPS” since the latter is patently false.

    On that basis you could argues that “electric cars are not green” because people will drive more often if it costs less. Right?

  4. says

    Its not that Cloud Computing isn’t green, its that computing isn’t green. For Cloud vendors to produce these stats they need support from the OS vendors. For OS vendors to produce this information they need support from the hardware vendors.

    However cloud vendors are highly motivated to provide this information for several reasons. Firstly carbon tax will hit them hardest and just about every jurisdiction I know of is going to wallop a carbon tax on computing (or indirectly through electricity) at some point in the future. Secondly from a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) perspective they know being green is good. It would certainly influence my choice of hosting vendor to know they were “greener” than the competition.

    Cloud Computing vendors have the buying power to influence the hardware and software vendors to support carbon counting initiatives and their ability to pass on these costs to their customers (in the same way as they charge for transactions, bandwidth and storage) can clearly influence their customers behaviour as well.

    In short when carbon measurement capabilities start appearing as standard on Dell, Sun, HP and IBM hardware expect it to appear on IaaS dashboards shortly thereafter.

  5. says

    @ian: not quite.
    I’ll try not to ramble so much, next time.
    On one side of the argument you have efficiency of resource usage and on the other you have componentisation, co-evolution and price elasticity effects. Your electric car analogy simply refers to price elasticity and ignores the more powerful componentisation consequences.

  6. says

    @ian – The Electric Car comparison is unfortunate I think. If people drive more because it is cheaper in Electric Cars, as long as they source their power from renewable sources, there is limited environmental impact.

    @Simon – I think you may have gone to the other extreme with the above response 😉 Perhaps you could say another few explanatory words around componentisation, co-evolution and price elasticity effects for the uninitiated…