The cloud’s green lining

Can the cloud make your IT operations greener?

Corporate computing carries various environmental impacts, but one of the most egregious is its power consumption. Servers and enterprise storage draw a lot of electricity. So do desktop computers, come to that - even modern ones optimised for power savings. Moving to a cloud-based infrastructure can help.

There are different cloud models, and some customers feel more comfortable moving to a private cloud. Under this model, they still own and maintain their own computers, but use cloud management software to use them more effectively.

Virtualisation is the biggest contributing technology here. Virtualising a computer abstracts the software logic from the underlying hardware, and in many cases makes it possible to run more than one operating system on the same computer.

Most servers that were dedicated to a single operating system would only run that operating system, often with only a small group of applications or a single software application running on it. This reduced the possibility for software conflicts that could crash a server and bring business to a grinding halt.

The problem with this is that the single operating system and small application base wouldn't use up the server's full operating capacity. In some cases, servers would only use 10% of their computing power, leaving the rest of the machine idling and still using power.

Virtualising all of the server operating systems in the data center enables more than one operating system to run on a single server, enabling the IT department to use the server's full operating capacity, and reducing the number of physical boxes in the datacenter. This generates power savings in two ways.

Firstly, it can reduce the power consumption of the server infrastructure. Server power supplies are notoriously wasteful, and so each separate machine in the datacenter would suck an inordinate amount of power from the system. Fewer servers means more efficient power usage.

The other saving comes in cooling costs. Servers kick out a lot of heat. The fewer servers there are, the less heat is produced, so the less cooling the system needs.

If a company is brave enough to pull its desktops into the cloud by virtualising its computers, it also stands to make power consumption savings outside the datacentre. A large bank of PCs in a room can draw considerable power. If they use old-school CRT monitors, they can draw more still, and contribute to overall room heat.

Replacing with thin clients that are little more than a screen, a keyboard, and an Internet connection can dramatically reduce overall power consumption throughout corporate offices.

This is only one aspect of cloud computing, however. The alternative is simply to offload some or all of your computing infrastructure altogether by giving it to a public cloud service provider.

In the pubic cloud model, you don't own your own servers. Instead, an infrastructure provider such as Amazon will give you access to servers in the cloud. Or a software as a service provider such as Salesforce, or Microsoft with its Office 365 product, will simply run your software and host your data for you.

This can drastically reduce your power consumption problems, especially if your staff are using thin clients or tablet PCs to access these services.

All of these savings are possible, but there are some caveats. For example, while some research suggests substantial cost savings in the datacenter, others suggest that things are more nuanced. For example, University of Melbourne researcher Rod Tucker found that in some scenarios - such as public cloud-based storage - the energy spent in sending and receiving data over the network can negate energy savings at the customer's end. Your mileage may vary, but it's worth breaking it down and doing the math.

There is also a potential downside here for those not focused solely on cost. You may save money on power consumption, but how sustainable is the cloud provider? Cloud providers operate huge datacenters that require massive power inputs to operate effectively, even with the efficiences afforded by virtualisation and cloud service management software.

Greenpeace recently published a report, How Clean Is Your Cloud?, which showed that many cloud service providers are drawing a lot of their power from 'dirty' fossil fuel industries, particularly coal.

Others are taking steps to improve their environmental footprint with innovative measures, such as placing datacenters close to the Arctic circle to reduce the cooling overhead, or drawing on renewable resources including wind and hydro power.

This may not be of interest to an IT department simply looking to reduce its own power bill, but if your company has a corporate responsibility mandate, it will be on the agenda when you choose a provider.

In any case, it seems that the cloud really does have a green lining - and that it can have a positive result on the profit and loss sheet.