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Cloud Computing Gets Hip to Green Markets

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Last week, I attended Structure 09, the GigaOM Network’s second annual cloud computing and infrastructure conference, here in San Francisco, and I was struck by the increasing relevance of the space to the discussion around green and IT.

As Katie has pointed out in the past, cloud computing’s “avoided costs” selling points map neatly to some green marketing messages that companies are beginning to leverage. Because cloud computing vendors offer a shared hardware environment, they’re able to make do with less data center gear, cutting energy use (and hardware spend). Servers are also more efficient when they’re more heavily used, and companies like Akamai say they can use equipment at 2-3 times higher utilization in a cloud environment. It’s not just public clouds that offer these “green” benefits, either; virtualization and data center consolidation — the hallmarks of private clouds — offer similar benefits. At Structure, I spoke with a handful of vendors who say they’re starting to recognize the opportunity to market their cloud solutions as “green” for such reasons.

But perhaps more notable to me was the expanding array of applications for which cloud computing is being used. And many of the coffee-break and cocktail-hour conversations floating around pointed to the increasingly “green” markets for cloud computing. There are, of course, the array of “green” web-based tools leveraging Amazon’s cloud, but the smart grid, in particular, was generating a lot of enthusiasm at Structure. Utilities, which have been long-time customers of the major IT players, are a looming opportunity for new, cost-effective, power-efficient data center gear and services.

The smart grid requires utilities to collect, analyze and interpret a mammoth amount of information; that data is generated by an increasingly variable set of supply-side resources (such as wind, solar, and an array of other renewables) and end users with demands that vary widely depending on the time of day, time of year and climate. Some of the vendors I spoke with said they’re evaluating new ways to sell into this market. Technologies designed for the cloud and web-scale computing — i.e., designed for irregular use patterns, large quantities of aggregate data, and distributed system architecture — are a neat match for many of these applications. Take, for example, Microsoft’s home-energy management tool, Hohm; it’s the company’s first consumer-facing web service hosted entirely on Azure.

There were some other interesting examples, as well. One attendee I spoke with told an anecdote (which I haven’t confirmed) about a utility using VMware to provide additional security to its grid intelligence system. According to the attendee I spoke with, the utility is able to shift its data processing from virtual machine to virtual machine every few minutes, without interrupting the workload, by using VMware’s failover capabilities, to disrupt potential hacker attacks.

As smart grid and cloud technologies continue to mature side-by-side, I’m sure we’ll see other creative applications emerge, as well.

Question of the week

What are other ways companies can leverage the cloud in green applications?