There has been a great deal of chatter in the technology world of late about 'the cloud', but are any of us actually aware of what this 'cloud' is? In layman's terms, the cloud is a data storage system not too dissimilar from a traditional hard drive, the major difference of course, is that we don't physically have access to this storage system, indeed, these 'clouds' are stored maybe hundreds or thousands of miles away in vast data centres that (at last estimation) use almost 10% of the world's entire electricity usage. For a service which sells itself as comparatively 'clean' and almost ephemeral (hence the name) that's an awful lot of power right? Indeed, the name itself is incredibly misleading.
Cloud computing is now used by pretty much every major company on the planet who has some semblance of an online presence to store all manner of data from emails and documents to picture, audio and video files. Internet streaming services such as Netflix and Youtube operate with cloud computing technology and do so via their own incredibly intensive data centres. In fact it is estimated that the average Netflix user is actually wasting more energy in one week simply using their Netflix streaming account than they would be powering two brand new fridges for a month! Of course very few people actually own two fridges (and if you do I couldn't be more jealous) but the point is that cloud computing is an incredibly energy intensive process.
Cloud computing is the silent assassin that has been quietly chipping away at our collective carbon footprint for years now with the majority of us being completely none the wiser. The data centres that form the heart of these clouds are vast, hulking buildings full of servers, which are required to be run constantly. As a result, it's estimated that the worlds data centres waste as much as 90% of their electricity. The vast majority of these sites also employ diesel emitting generators to serve as a backup if the power should fail for any reason.
What Can Be Done?
As the idea of scrapping cloud storage entirely is just not on the table (unless you want to be walking around with a server the size and weight of a desktop PC strapped to your back in a few years time) there are only really two viable options for reducing the carbon footprint of cloud computing. One is to implement more stringent energy efficiency measures and the other is to move data centres to locations where power companies work primarily with clean, renewable energy.
Many of the data centres that power the cloud servers used by major internet players such as Apple, Google and Facebook run on renewable energy for obvious reasons. On one hand it makes the company look good and in the long run it saves them money, the 'green dollar' is merely an added bonus. The data centres used by Apple in fact, are powered by 100% renewable energy, making them perhaps the 'greenest' technology conglomerate in the world. Google's operate at a mere 34% but they are looking to expand their use of renewable sources. As is Facebook, who have recently built a large data centre near a massive hydro electric plant in Sweden to better utilise it's clean, renewable energy. But there are still holdouts who refuse to join the environmentally conscious age, chief amongst which is a certain online retailer, which has been making waves in the news recently due to a certain tax avoidance scandal.
Of all the major online entities that have been accused of 'hogging' too much power, Amazon is the most guilty. The sad truth is that the digital power group that runs the cloud service for Amazon (known as the AWS) is sponsored by the coal and mining industries, so from a business standpoint, it's understandable that Amazon continues to use coal to fuel its data centres. However does it really need to be to such an extent? A whopping 75% of the power for the companies Virginia based servers come from coal and nuclear sources, with only a feeble 13.5% derived from renewable sources. Customers are more 'turned on' now than they ever have been and as such, Amazon's customer base have started to actively campaign for the company to start using more renewable resources to power their servers, but as of yet the majority of the pleas have fallen on deaf ears. As the rest of the world's cloud computing services move towards renewable energy sources, it's hard to believe Amazon won't follow in their stead. For the time being though, it would appear they are a company very much stuck in their old ways and these 'old ways' could very well prove their and (by extension) our planets downfall.
As the 'always online' digital economy continues to thrive we are all going to have to become more aware of exactly where the energy to sustain it is coming from and what the potential costs could be. Apple has proven that it doesn't need to use coal to fuel it's data centres and other companies should really be following suit. Of course there are other (perhaps more sinister) factors at play, of which we can only speculate, but it has been proven by one of the worlds most forward thinking and enduringly popular technology companies that renewable energies and the cloud don't have to be mutually exclusive. The sooner the rest of the world gets on board, the better it will be for all of us.
Crispin Jones is a freelance business blogger with an interest in saving energy. Crispin is currently working with Juice Electrical Supplies – an online supplier of energy saving products.