Cloud Energy Consumption: Google, Twitter and the Systems Vendors

Yesterday Tom posed a question: just how green is cloud computing? We have been frankly disappointed by Cloud computing providers reticence to start publishing numbers on energy consumption. We know for sure that energy is a big deal when it comes to the huge data centers the likes of Facebook are building- these firms are siting data centers next to rivers to take advantage of hydro-electric power, and in Google’s case are even looking at building their own wind turbine farms.

Some of you may remember the huge fuss when Alex Wissner Gross, a researcher from Harvard University estimated how much energy the net consumed, which became a Sunday Times story about Google Searches in terms of kettles boiled. The story claimed:

performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle” or about 7g of CO2 per search

Perhaps surprisingly, Google responded, to debunk the news story:

In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2.

The story petered out- which is somewhat of a shame. A real, open debate, with shared figures, bringing in all of the main players, would clearly benefit us all. With that in mind I was pleased to see that one of Raffi Krikorian, tech lead of the Twitter API team, chose to talk about power/tweet at the company’s Chirp developer conference last week:

In summary, Raffi estimated that energy consumed is around 100 Joules per tweet.

Before jumping to a conclusion that Twitter is more efficient than Google its important to note that Raffi’s estimates, unlike Google’s, don’t include the power of the PC in the equation. You should also watch the video of his presentation – for the simple reason that Raffi seems to channel Jay-Z in his presenting: the guy’s body language is straight out of a hip hop video.

I discussed Twitter’s “disclosure” with my colleague Tom this morning. He questioned its value because its an estimate, rather than a measurement. He has a point. It may be however that Raffi is just the man to take this debate to the next level. He is clearly deeply technical, can think at the level of the isolated API – and is finally a Sustainability advocate of note- I first heard of him through his seminal How Valentine’s Day Causes Global Warming riff.

We need to encourage competition on the basis of power efficiency.

I’d like to close with a call to action. Surely its time for the major web players to get together with Dell, HP and IBM in order to agree standards so we can move from estimates to measurements of Cloud energy consumption, perhaps using AMEE ($client) as a back end for standard benchmarks. You can’t have sustainability through obscurity. Open data is key to working through the toughest environmental challenges.


  1. says

    The darknet consumes energy/carbon more than the public cloud by several orders of magnitude. All the financial services companies I have ever worked for keep their services running 24×7 despite most of them being on average less than 1% utilised.

    Don’t even get me started on what happens on the desktop.

    Like I said before, take out the cloud part to really start understanding the problem.

    The Cloud guys know carbon counting is coming and they are likely to be the first out the door with a solution. My bet is Amazon will have it on a bill before the end of 2011.

    This will not solve the problem. IDC estimates that cloud computing represented just 4% of the overal spend on IT in 2008. (

    So focusing on cloud computing is missing the opportunity. Instead beat up the hardware vendors to offer a way to measure power consumption and beat up the OS vendors to expose it as an API (boy that would be a nice API for the standards guys).

    • says

      Joe – absolutely. i have heard rumours for a while that AWS would pull the trigger on carbon reporting sooner rather than later. I don’t give IDC estimates a great deal of credence to be honest, especially given they’re focusing on “IT spend”. when it comes to google search and twitter there is no “IT spend”. But the really key point is WE CAN INSTRUMENT the cloud…. its doable. The darknet, as you call it, not so much. Cloud is the growth area. Why wait until later when we can push for transparency now. The web is different from the status quo. It offers us new opportunities in terms of instrumentation and telemetry. We talk about an internet of things, but we haven’t even instrumented the internet for power consumption yet. And finally – what are you talking about in terms of beating up? Its hardly beating them up to call for more engagement with energy transparency, is it?

  2. says

    Based on my research, google eats hydro-power and impacts rivers due to dams while amazon eats coal and impacts out mercury intake. Having been inside IBM from 1984-2009, they don’t give a hoot.

    In my opinion, the vendors will all fake their way into greeness and claim the prize. Ultimately, real green is USD. But, I think the opportunity to make a difference rests with the systems management vendors. The power consumption data is indeed there. The apis should be a requirement for vendor selection. Then, the “green” systems management vendor will rise out of the cloud of smoke.

  3. says

    Maybe we could get Alex Wissner Gross to write another provocative and wildly inaccurate story about the carbon costs of cloud computing? Would the cloud vendors be embarrassed/outraged into responding with more realistic numbers?

    Anyone got his @?

  4. says

    There is a worrying trend towards outsourcing emissions generally. Businesses are unintentionally doing it when they move any business process to outside service organisation. They then report their scope 1 & 2 emissions as being incorrectly reducing as a result of their tremendous efforts to be sustainable.

    Specifically regarding the move to the cloud. The move is “probably” resulting in a reduction in emissions due to the “economies of scale” of managing a huge virtualised data centre over managing many small computer rooms. So, although the cloud operators aren’t doing enough in terms of transparency, they are “probably” having a positive impact on emissions.

    It will be interesting to see Microsoft’s emissions next year. They have been excellent at publicly disclosing emissions for all their operations globally since 2004. Next year we should be able to see the impact their AZURE platform has had on their emissions and at least get some indication of the “greenness” of their cloud platform.

    Unfortunately Amazon has refused each request from the Carbon Disclosure Project since 2003 to publish their emissions so it will not be possible to perform any decent comparison.

    That said, the moves by Tesco, Wal-Mart and other retail giants will eventually force the hand of the cloud providers if they are to deliver services to global enterprises.

    With regards to your “Call to Action” – There is no technical reason stopping cloud providers exposing their emissions data now. IBM, DELL or HP don’t need to even be involved. The Hardware vendors only become relevant when the cloud providers try to reduce their emissions – by selecting the most efficient hardware vendor.

  5. says

    Google Search and Twitter have no IT spend, shurely shome mishtake? They don’t magic all that compute power out of the ether.

    Beat up is too strong, I agree, but ignoring the darknet because its “too hard” is weak.

    IDC reflects macro economic trends in technology as well as anyone so I buy their ratios. They are within an order of magnitude of the real number which in turn speaks to the idea that having the cloud vendors getting their act together will barely move the carbon cost needle on a global scale.