Cloud Computing Will Save Energy? Not So Simple

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The analysts at Pike Research came out with a report this week that claims that the adoption of cloud computing will lead to a 38 percent reduction in worldwide data center energy use by 2020, compared to what the growth of data center energy consumption would be without cloud computing. While the folks at Pike are smart guys, I’d like to respectfully disagree with such a simplistic finding.

In contrast, a recent report from University of Melbourne researcher Rod Tucker and his team, which I wrote about for GigaOM Pro (subscription required), found that while cloud computing can deliver a more efficient use of computing power, in some cases, cloud computing can actually lead to more energy use than traditional in-office computing.

Web companies have been embracing cloud computing in order to buy flexible, lower cost, on-demand computing power from companies like Amazon (s AMZN). So cloud computing generally replaces the computing that would have been done by companies’ own in-house computing resources.

Simply put, data traveling to and from the cloud to the user’s device (often times a computer) still requires energy. Most researchers overlook this fact in lieu of focusing solely on the energy consumed within the data center. While the energy required to transport data from the cloud to each device is nominal on an individual level, across thousands and millions of devices it can add up; in certain cases, transporting the data actually overtakes any efficiencies gained by putting applications in the cloud.
Cloud computing can indeed save energy when it leads simply to the consolidation of servers. But looking at three different applications of cloud computing — storage, software and processing — Tucker’s report found it’s clear that the energy efficiency savings are negated in a variety of scenarios. For example, one such instance is using cloud computing for storing data, and when the number of downloaded and accessed files becomes larger (more than one download per hour for a public cloud storage service), those energy efficiency gains are erased.

At the same time, companies that sell cloud services are eager to advertise that the cloud is greener and more energy-efficient. A new study from Microsoft, (s MSFT) Accenture and WSP Environment and Energy found that moving business applications to the cloud can cut the associated per-user carbon footprint 30 percent for larger, already-efficient clients and as much as 90 percent for the smallest and least efficient businesses. Microsoft sells cloud computing services from its Azure product.

Finding the energy savings of cloud computing is a very complex process, and I think it’s far more nuanced than the Pike researchers are finding it.

To read more on energy consumption and cloud computing check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Image courtesy of The Planet.

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I think where these data centers draw their power from will play a major role in the energy savings. It is probably easier to get a handful of Data Centers to use greener power than it would be to get the thousands or millions of users of those data centers to switch to greener power.

I agree though, it is a little more than the electricity saved by consolidating computers.

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