Today has seen the release of the Greenpeace report: “Make IT Green – Cloud Computing and its contribution to Climate Change” catch the headlines. The report basically claims that the rise of cloud computing is increasingly reliant on the use of dirty fossil fuels and that urgent action needs to be taken to redress the situation.

According to the report, Greenpeace claims that the energy consumption and carbon emissions of cloud computing is already significantly higher had been previously estimated. Using carbon emission projection data provided by McKinsey (included within the 2008 study Smart 2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age published by the Climate Group) and updating it with data supplied by the Environmental Protection Agency, Greenpeace has concluded that the actual energy consumption of cloud computing is 1.3 times greater than intimated by the Smart 2020 study.

Greenpeace’s concerns focus on the fact that should this situation remain unchecked, and with most data centers around the globe using fossil fuels, cloud computing could lead to a real cloud of pollution, revealing that at current growth rates data centers and networks will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020. This is more than triple their current consumption and more than the current electricity consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

If considered as a country, global telecommunications and data centers behind cloud computing would have ranked fifth in the world for energy use in 2007, behind the United States, China, Russia and Japan, it concluded.

The report highlights the data center expansion plans of several global giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple and appears somewhat critical that few of these highlighted companies appear to have pursued renewable energy for their power supply at their facilities.

“The last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power,” said Greenpeace.

The cloud, argues Greenpeace, may be the fastest-growing facet of technology infrastructure between now and 2020, and requires its main exponents to innovate, increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lobby Government for a workable renewable energy agenda.

“The potential of ICT technologies and cloud computing to drive low-carbon economic growth underscore the importance of building cloud infrastructure in places powered by clean renewable energy. Companies like Facebook, Google, and other large players in the cloud computing market must advocate for policy change at the local, national and international levels to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does the supply of renewable energy.” concluded Greenpeace.

So are the arguments highlighted in the report valid? Will cloud computing lead to smog?

On the face of it this particular report is accurate, and no one can argue that Industry (not just the data center/technology industry) needs to address the issue of renewable energy and a move away from reliance on fossil fuels, but it could equally be argued that this report is somewhat ‘one eyed’ in its approach.

In an ideal world we would all use renewable energy sources but at the current moment in time this situation is idealistic. Most data center operators are utilising facilities that were built in less enlightened times and simply plug into the grid offered by their utility or power provider and are therefore often faced with ‘Hobson’s Choice’ as to the mix of fossil vs. renewable energy offered. Whilst companies with the financial clout of Google might be able to enter the power utility space, for many other cloud operators this is simply not an option.

One recognises that the Greenpeace, with its wholly admirable intentions in issuing this report, is seeking leadership from the global IT giants in its bid to move renewable energy up the public agenda, but it should also recognise that the DC industry as a whole, not just the IT super powers, is generally aware of its responsibilities and is genuinely seeking to reduce its impact where it can.

In the report, Greenpeace claims that seeking energy efficiency, whilst to be commended, is not enough but for many smaller operators, faced with legacy builds, it is a start and a major one.

It is an undeniable fact that the raw energy consumed by the data center is both the biggest financial cost overhead and is easily the largest contributor to the facility’s carbon footprint. But whilst acknowledging that power supply is obviously vital, there are many other major considerations to take into account when building out a new DC facility – internet/network connectivity being one rather important one for example.

The report correctly claims that Cloud computing is growing, and so too are the data centers that are supporting its growth, but what it does not appear to mention is the overall net effect on energy consumption  as disparate server farms are closed and replaced by moving business processes to the cloud. Many companies taking advantage of the benefits of the cloud are effectively outsourcing their existing IT infrastructure and no longer have a need to own or maintain servers.

Logic would suggest that one hundred companies ridding themselves of their own in-house maintained and cooled servers in exchange for utilising one single cloud operator’s infrastructure would lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions. Analysts at IDC estimate that for every $1.00 spent on new hardware, an additional $0.50 is spent on power and cooling. By implementing a more efficient cooling solution e.g. a single DC rather than a 100 server rooms, fitted with the latest cooling technology, the amount of energy consumed must be reduced.

Even acknowledging the tough current economic conditions, it is no surprise that IDC reckons that in 2009 the overall server market declined by 18.9 per cent as many companies consolidated and outsourced their computing requirements.

In addition to the physical building and plant economies of scale that cloud computing offers, much effort is currently being expended by cloud providers on the utilisation of virtualisation technologies within the DC.  The cloud service provider can add real value here through scale and through the dedicated technological expertise offered. Underpowered virtual servers can fail to meet an organization’s processing needs, and over-engineered systems can waste money and energy. There is also a real potential for server sprawl to occur with a badly planned and implemented virtualisation project but this is mitigated when handled on a purpose built cloud platform.

Likewise the use of “energy proportional” operational techniques is growing amongst cloud service providers, which basically manages ‘spikey’ computing power activity – from idle to peak load – at its most energy efficient.

And of course we shouldn’t over look the fact that the very nature of cloud computing can lead to other environmental benefits as well, the web applications hosted in a data center may allow thousands of people to telecommute instead of travelling to offices and meetings thus reducing the carbon footprint further.

If we are to truly assist the environment by building greener data centers – and given that it has also been said that the ‘greenest data center is the one that we don’t have to build’ – we need to pursue a holistic approach which looks at every aspect of the services that the cloud offers not just the raw power supply.

If utilised effectively, cloud computing offers organisations the opportunity to reduce their energy consumption, renewable or otherwise, and surely overall energy reduction rather than energy replacement is a long term goal that will be of benefit to everyone.