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Making the cloud green, by design

By Roopen Roy Aug 09 2011

Tags: Op-ed
Cloud computing has the potential of dramatically transforming the way we consume computing power and media storage. The most basic definition of cloud computing is: it is internet-based computing — where applications you use are hosted in a remote, shared data centre, instead of locally. Think of how you consume electric po­w­er. If you had to choose bet­ween having a very secure di­esel powered generator at ho­me manned 24 x 7 by operat­o­rs or access to power from a p­u­­blic utility paying only for po­wer that you consume—wh­­ich option would you pick?

The choice was not quite so clear-cut until cloud enabled the use of infrastructure, platforms and applications in a sh­ared mode via the internet. No­w you do not need to buy the whole bottle. You can imb­ibe at your own pace and pay by the drink.

I particularly like the simple definition of cloud computing by salesforce.com, which offers a customer relationship management application on the cl­oud, “Instead of running yo­ur apps yourself, they run on a shared data centre. When you use any app that runs in the cloud, you just log in, custo­mise it, and start using it.”

Whether you had small ge­nerators at home or drew po­wer from a large electricity ut­ility which burned coal—in both cases you will have to co­ntend, as a community, the is­sue of pollution and carbon fo­otprint. The debate then boils down to which one is a greener option and how can we design the power plant and, in the ca­se of cloud computing — the massive data centres—greener by design.

Make no mistake, data centers need cooling and have a voracious appetite for energy. The US Department of Energy estimated that in 2006, data centres in the United States used 61 billion kWh of electricity, or 1.5 per cent of all electricity used by the US. This nu­mber was expected to grow at a rate of at least 12 per cent per year. Going by this projection, a full 3 per cent of electricity in the US is consumed by data centres.

The underlying assumpt­ions of growth in data centres made in 2006 are no longer va­lid since ‘cloud’ has ch­anged all calculations. According to Forrester Research, a reputed te­chnology and market research analyst, the worldwide spending on public cloud computing services will grow from $25.5 billion in 2011 to $160 billion in 2020, a 22 percent annual growth rate. However, the good news is that all of the energy consumption from this burst of growth will not be incremental. Millions of ‘domestic diesel ge­nerators’ or small servers and private data centres will mo­ve to the cloud.

Cloud computing will be a net saver of energy consumption. If one were to go by the calculations of the carbon disclosure project (https:// ww­w.cdproject.net/en-US/Pa­g­es/ HomePage.aspx) the sustainability benefits of cloud co­mputing are immense. By 2020, large US companies that use cloud computing can ac­hieve annual energy savings of $12.3 billion and annual carbon reductions equivalent to 200 million barrels of oil — enough to power 5.7 million cars for one year. It is critical for our future generation that we make the cloud green by design. Several interesting approaches are being tried and India should look at all of them to tailor its own frugal innovation model.

It is well known that large data centres require massive cooling that accounts for about 40% of the energy consumption. Therefore, it does not ma­ke a great deal of sense to locate a large data centre in the middle of a scorching desert or a sizzling city. China is using its climatic diversity and listening to mother nature.

The city of Harbin, which is the capital of China’s nort­hernmost pro­vi­nce Heilo­n­g­j­i­a­ng, is bitterly co­ld with an average temperature of 3.5 degrees celsius. It is aptly called Ch­ina’s ‘Ice City’ and hosts its annual ice and snow festival. It is inviting global IT companies to transform Har­bin into a base for cloud computing to save on costs related to heat dissipation in their data centres. As Hyderabad was na­med Cyberabad, Har­bin is be­ing called the ‘China Cloud Va­lley’. And this is Ha­rbin’s pr­oud claim, “We’­ve got the geography, the temperature and the networks. We’ve got the el­ectricity, the co­oling wa­ter, and we’ve got the talent; Ch­ina Cloud Valley project is re­ady to take off.” China is also using its climatic and geogr­ap­hic advantages to dr­ive balanced gr­owth and spr­ead the benefits of ICT to remote pa­rts of the co­untry. Can the go­vernment in India think of Sh­imla, Muss­o­o­rie, Darjeeli­ng, Shillong, Lonav­ala and Ko­da­i­k­anal as venues of their data ce­ntres rather than the most swe­ltering cities in India?

If we do locate data centers in cooler climes, scientists will help us to recycle the heat produced by data centres to further reduce the costs and carbon footprint.

Scientists from Microsoft and two professors of computer science from the University of Virginia have produced a research paper earlier this ye­ar titled The Data Furnace: He­ating Up with Cloud Computing. The paper proposes that se­rvers can be sent to homes and office buildings and used as a primary heat source. Data furnaces will re-use the heat generated by data centres to heat water, tanks, office buildings, apartment complexes, campuses and ve­getable fa­rms. If cloud is inevitable, it is important that we make it green — not by chance, but by design and thoughtful planning.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)
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