A more sustainable cloud through transparency & change

Facebook’s Prineville data center.

As the world we live in continues to develop better technologies and new and exciting ways of communicating, our demand for energy grows. Data centers are the engines that drive our connected world, processing the billions of daily transactions, comments and interactions in our digital society. More data equals more energy – and this is starting to become a big headache from a sustainability perspective.

If a singular data center can consume the equivalent energy of 180,000 homes, exactly how large is the overall impact on our planet, and what is being done about it?

Data on energy & computing

Sourcing reliable figures on datacenter output and its effect on the world is difficult, due in part to the fast rate of growth as well as rapidly changing technology and business models. However, the main factor that defines a lack of accurate data has been the unwillingness of major IT brands to act transparently in their operations. Historically, cloud brands have not been willing to disclose information through fear of revealing competitive advantage or disadvantage in operations.

According to a 2007 report from iClimate on global e-sustainability, the world’s data centers and telecommunications networks used a combined electricity of 623 billion kWh. What does that number mean? Well, if the cloud were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world, sitting somewhere between India and Japan on the global energy consumption charts.

The report also indicates that cloud-serving data centers are responsible for 2 percent of the world’s annual CO2 emissions – a figure that has likely grown in the five years since the reports creation. Two percent may not sound like a massive amount, but when you consider how much the ecosystem of data has changed since 2007, that 2 percent could easily become 4 percent in a very short time frame.

The exponential growth in data consumption both at home with super-fast broadband and on the go with 3G and 4G data connections have meant that 2007’s figure really no longer applies. However Greenpeace’s 2010 report “Make IT Green,” predicts the demand for data center electricity will more than triple over the next five years, resulting in an energy demand totaling that of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

The largest culprit for the massive spike in data seen recently is the mobile industry. Mobile data traffic in 2011 was eight times the size of the entire internet in 2000. By the end of 2012 the number of connected devices is expected to exceed the global population. This mobile boom is largely down to large scale adoption in emerging markets. As of January 2012 India had 0ver 900 million mobile connections and could become the largest mobile market in the world in terms of revenue. As hardware costs fall and functionality increases, this adoption will only continue to rise, and the data serving providers need to expand to accommodate the increased demand.

Cell phone towers on the sky line of Old Delhi.

Location, location, location

So, what can cloud providers do about this mass demand for energy? The future of the industry and how it operates is largely down to 3 things; location, self sufficiency and transparency.

When choosing siting for a new data center, there are a number of considerations. There has to be an adequate availability of affordable electricity, telecommunications infrastructure as well as tax incentives, climate and proximity to end-users.

While many areas of the world can offer these considerations in abundance, the future of a green cloud is dependent on just two. Many cloud companies considering self hosted data are moving to cooler climes to make the most of the ‘free cooling’ benefits. Free cooling is the use of external air for hardware cooling.

Traditionally nearly half of a data center’s power consumption comes from cooling the rooms of servers that physically hold the data. These behemoth computers generate a massive amount of heat, and as such require constant chilling. By locating your data centre in an area of naturally low temperatures, such as the Nordic countries, providers can half their consumption by drawing in the chilled outside air. This shift is already starting to happen as providers find the financial benefits a driving force, and the green outcome an added perk.

The second consideration to location is positioning in relation to a renewable energy source. Many of the worlds largest data center’s are driven by coal and gas. This is classed as dirty energy, however a number of providers are making the move to sustainability through renewable energy

Facebook built its third major data center in Lulea, Sweden – a location chosen for the large amount of existing hydroelectric capacity at high availability. The data center is fully powered with renewable energy from an outer source.

The problem with the location fix is that a huge number of data centers already exist in areas that do not have access to renewable energy sources. For these providers, often their only choice for external power is coal. A growing number of cloud companies are taking matters into their own hands and creating their own source of energy.

The one thing a data center has going for it is size. If we take i/o Data Centers as an example, their facility in Phoenix, Arizona has an enormous 580,000 sq ft footprint that has allowed them to install 5,000 solar panels in an array that will generate a total of 4.5MW at peak capacity. Though this is just a fraction of the 100MW demand, the solar panels will be married with thermal storage technology to reduce the energy drain of cooling during the heat of the day.

Apple has recently announced a 20MW solar array and has also invested in a 5MW fuel cell device on site in Maiden, NC. The industry is starting to sit up and listen.

A company like Google, Amazon, Facebook or Apple has enormous clout in the areas they operate. These tech giants are big fish to the local utility firms, who will all be vying to supply them with power upon creation of new centers. By negotiating renewable energy with the utilities, corporations can begin to change the coal driven ecosystem and drive the industry towards a brighter future.

IT and cloud providers have a duty to research renewable energy sources and implement sustainable power solutions. As well as this duty to source green energy, they also have a duty to report on it. By releasing figures on energy output, full research can be engaged and better solutions and energy standards can be created.

The future of our technological advancement is no longer down to competition and advantage. Providers need to work together to create a better plan for our engorging power drain so that we have a future to enjoy the technology in.

Jason Currill is founder and CEO of Ospero, a global Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) company. The company, through a federated cloud strategy, has one of the largest ubiquitous, single vendor cloud platforms in the world. Before founding Ospero, Jason, a seasoned technology Executive with over 15 years international sales experience, worked with Cisco Systems, Business Objects (a SAP company) and NetSuite, in charge of both EMEA and NA territories. Prior to his career in IT, Jason worked on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE) for almost 10 years as a Futures Trader.

Ospero’s distribution-as-a-service (DaaS) offering, helps business rollout global SaaS instances without vendors having to worry about legal compliance, latency issues and privacy headaches. All of Ospero’s data centers comply with the ISO 4001 standard. The company believes in green and has recently been praised by external assessors for the maturity of their environmental management systems. This article is written by Jason Currill, CEO of Ospero.

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