Making the cloud green, by design
By Roopen Roy Aug 09 2011
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The underlying assumptions of growth in data centres made in 2006 are no longer valid since ‘cloud’ has changed all calculations.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)