Are cloud computing devices really responsible for harmful carbon footprint?

7 04 2010

These days it’s nearly impossible to browse news sites without being bombarded by the latest updates on Apple’s iPad, especially with its public release Saturday. What we haven’t heard much buzz about is the potential damaging impact of cloud computing- a concept that the iPad will depend greatly on.

Major companies, including Google and Apple, are constructing massive new data centers geared to cloud computing in North Carolina, home to the FutureWeb conference, and dozens of international locations.

Apple’s $1 billion data center in Maiden, N.C. is due to open soon. It encompasses 500,000 square feet, making it roughly five times the size of the company’s existing data center in California.

View a clip of the Maiden Apple data center:

Google’s new North Carolina data center, housing thousands of servers, cost $600 million and is located in Lenoir. The company has at least 11 other significant data centers in the United States, with many others located across the globe.

Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo are some of the other companies getting into the data centers race, building gigantic warehouses packed with tens of thousands of servers in locations with cheap energy costs. Today, Google alone runs as many as a half a million servers to handle business in cyberspace.

Some data centers are beginning to have more environmentally conscious structures. Yahoo! is constructing a $150 million data center near Buffalo, N.Y. The site was specifically chosen for its low cooling costs and the ability to use fresh air cooling. The Yahoo! data center will also enjoy ready access to low-carbon and low-cost hydro power.

In anticipation of the iPad’s release, international environmental advocacy group Greenpeace released a study highlighting the possible harm that surrounds such cloud computing devices last Tuesday. The report, titled “Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change,” shows access to the cloud of online services can contribute a much larger carbon footprint than previously projected.

Cloud computing is a metaphor for a system where the Internet stores all personal data, including computer documents, entertainment, news and other products and services that are delivered to your personal device. The creation of the cloud carries the larger implications of loss of personal data control and access to private information.

An abstract of the Greenpeace cloud computing report, posted on the organization’s Web site, said:

“To be clear: We are not picking on Apple. We are not dissing the iPad. Apple is the master of promotion, and while we marvel at the sleek unpolluted design of the iPad, we need to think about where this is all leading and how, like all good surfers, we can make sure our environment stays clean and green.”

The report says in order for cloud computing devices to become more environmentally friendly, they must provide service from renewable energy sources and utilize IT services that are devoted to using electricity sources that remain green. When ICT technologies partner with “responsible cloud computing,” the industry will be effectively driving out “dirty sources of energy to address climate change.”

Greenpeace’s study echoes the explosion of mobile cloud applications we have witnessed in the past few years, mainly through the launch of the Google phone, Microsoft’s Azure cloud services for business… and now, the iPad. The reoccurring trends in these services point toward an increased size and scale of data centers to support these major brands. The study questions the resulting electricity consumption and dangerous emissions from these centers, as well as future sources of energy that will certainly be necessary to support the growing demand for such services.

The controversy surrounding cloud computing’s carbon footprint isn’t to say that Apple hasn’t taken measures toward a green focus. At Apple’s unveiling of the iPad in January, the company noted the new device features hardware that is free of arsenic, brominated flame retardant, mercury and other chemicals that are harmful to the environment. The iPad is also “highly recyclable.” Apple also reports that less than 5% of its emissions come from manufacturing facilities.

BusinessWire issued a press release last Wednesday, which was coincidentally Earth Day, saying: “one of the boldest green initiatives involves the technology of computing.” Statements from leaders in the technology industry support the belief that cloud computing might be the answer for utilizing computer power more efficiently.

Ryan Peterson, President and CEO of OCZ Technology, a San Jose-based company that designs, manufactures and distributes high-performance drives and premium computer components, says there are many green benefits to cloud computing devices. In the press release he says:

“The flash memory utilized within solid state drives (SSDs) is faster and uses significantly less power than conventional hard drives. Because SSDs allow users to access their data electronically, rather than mechanically, they also eliminate the need for a large, costly storage area network. Without such a massive array, there are colossal power savings.”

While the popularity of cloud computing devices is amplified, the debate over the possible carbon footprint is ongoing.  Still, many remain hopeful for an environmentally friendly future in the technology sector.

Michael Dell of Forbes magazine says in the Greenpeace report:

“I have always believed that IT is the engine of an efficient economy; it also can drive a greener one.”

For more information on speakers, topics and details of the FutureWeb conference, visit the FutureWeb site. To register for the conference, click here.

By Ashley Dischinger