Is the Cloud, Green?

Written by John Booth, MD at Carbon3IT Ltd Published 2015-06-17 08:00:00

Some IT solutions providers, when asked the question about sustainable or Green IT will nearly always present a "cloud based" solution to their customers, believing that the "cloud" must always be greener and more energy efficient than on site computing.

In order to answer this question, we must firstly define "the Cloud".

We should default back to the September 2011 National Institute of Standards & Technology "Definition of Cloud Computing". The document states that

"Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on demand, network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (networks, servers, storage, applications and services that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction"

The cloud model is composed of 5 essential characteristics, 3 service models and 4 deployment models.

The essential characteristics are "on demand self-service", "broad network access", "resource pooling", "rapid elasticity" and "measured service".

The service models are "Software as a Service (SaaS)", "Platform as a Service (PaaS)" and "Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)", although other new Anything as a Service (XaaS )are available such as Business Process as a Service (BPaaS), Network as a Service (NaaS), Communications as a Service (CaaS), but these are defined in the NIST standard.

The deployment models are "Private Cloud", "Community Cloud", "Public Cloud" and "Hybrid Cloud".

And while we're at it we should define "Green" and specifically "Green IT".

By Green ICT we mean, the tools, techniques and approaches that reduce the material impact of ICT on the environment across its lifecycle, ranging from the resources and materials used in the manufacture/development of ICT, the conditions under which ICT is manufactured or developed, the delivery of ICT to customers and users, the energy consumed in using ICT, and, the disposal of ICT at the end of its life

Ref: HMG GDU (Green Delivery Unit)
v It seems, at least from the cloud definition that "greenness" is not really taken into account, for instance "on demand" and "broad network access" do not equate to a greener solution, rather a more environmentally unkind alternative to a conventional digital service delivery platform on site.

A cloud service is delivered to an end user as follows:

  1. User Device – Access Point (this could be a mobile connection, wifi or via a direct cable)
  2. Access Point to Cloud Service location (this could mean that the service request actually routes through a number of different "hops" (a telco or data centre facility) dependent on the geographic location of the computer that will service the request.

You can work out how many "hops" a cloud request could make by opening a command instance from your PC and typing "tracert" and then the address of the cloud service. If you look at the image below you will see that a simple request to will route via 17 "hops to the delivery server, at each of these hops your request is using a core switch both inbound and outbound (although they may be the same one).

Hops Image small

This routing has an energy cost that is largely hidden to you and actually paid for by your utility provider and the owners of each hop.

There is also no mention made of specific cloud metrics, and by this I mean an end to end energy consumption measurement or a flag from a hop to indicate age, energy efficiency and "greenness" of using that particular route, maybe an application or command line eco-ping could be developed to provide end users with an indication of energy cost and greenness.

So, coming back to is the Cloud green, we should look at the environmental costs of the cloud during manufacture (and this should include building fabric, network infrastructure fabric and equipment) the "in use" phase, and finally the disposal phase (decommission, recycling upgrade etc), compared with the existing form of delivery of the "service"

Cloud data centres tend to be fairly new and not direct replacements for existing equipment, no green ticks there then!

The Network infrastructure (ducts, poles and telephone exchanges) have grown organically since the dawn of the communication age so parts of it will be green, newer bits probably not.

User devices are largely disposable, how many of you have a smart phone? How old is it?

So, on first look, the cloud is not Green.

How can we make it Green?

Well, it's probably going to cost a lot of money as we are going to have to ensure that every new location is built sustainably, this means to LEED or BREEAM standards for the building fabrics, and we'll have to turn off the old systems.

The IT itself will have to be sustainable and energy efficient/effective and be ranked against, for instance, the Energy Star criteria.

Green Coding will be required to make optimum use of the processors available and to automatically shut down or idle physical and virtual services that are not required Work proceeds to develop green coding standards globally.

All facilities will need to be renewable energy powered, but why stop at ICT for this?

Ultimately, growth is driven by what users use IT for! Is it green to post pictures of your lunch on a social media site? Who cares?

So, the Cloud is certainly not green, but does it need to be? After all, if the use of Cloud has benefits beyond social media apps, say for instance genome mapping or health care in the developing world, then surely the energy and resources cost has to be worth it from a human perspective?

I'd say that improvements in technology, the better management of those data centre hop locations in terms of energy consumption and the better recycling of old tech to extract the valuable resources should mean that eventually the cloud will be greener but that time is not now.

VIRTUS locations have achieved a series of accreditations including BREEAM 'Excellent' Standard for Data Centres, and ISO standards across quality, environmental management, information security and energy management. The new accreditations reinforce VIRTUS' commitment to analysing, benchmarking and improving its business using industry recognised bodies in the areas of quality, security, environmental, sustainability, service availability and energy management.

BREEAM Standards for Data Centres are a set of design and operational criteria that cover the lifecycle of a building from the 'cradle to the grave'. The standards create the benchmark for best practice in sustainable building design, construction and operation and have become one of the most comprehensive and widely recognised measures of a building's environmental performance. VIRTUS is in a select group of companies that have achieved the 'Excellent' standard, which demonstrates 'best practice' and places LONDON2 in the top 10 per cent of new 'non-domestic' buildings in the UK.

BREEAM encourages designers and operators to think about low carbon and low impact design, minimising the energy demands created by a building – before considering low carbon technologies. Covering a broad range of categories and criteria from energy to ecology, achieving BREEAM certification demonstrates VIRTUS on-going obligation to sustainability across a wide range of aspects including energy and water use, pollution, transport, materials, waste, health and well-being.

Additionally, VIRTUS has further enhanced its operational capability with the implementation of an integrated management system certified against four key international management standards: ISO9001:2008 (Quality), ISO14001:2004 (Environmental Management), ISO27001:2013 (Information Security) and ISO50001:2011 (Energy Management).

The integrated management system covers the entire VIRTUS portfolio including its headquarters in Central London, and its LONDON1 and LONDON2 data centres in Enfield and Hayes respectively. By achieving these accreditations, VIRTUS is once again able to demonstrate its commitment to quality, security, operating and energy efficiency, risk and waste reduction, and continual performance improvement in all of its services.

About the Author

John Booth is the MD of Carbon3IT Ltd, a sustainable IT consultancy specialising in Data Centre energy efficiency. John is the Vice Chair of the British Computer Society's Green IT and Treasurer of the Data Centre specialist groups as well as Chair of the Data Centre Alliance's Energy Efficiency, Cooling and Sustainability group. He is also a committee member of the BSI's IST/46 committee, Sustainability, for and by ICT and the liaison between this group and TC215.