Climate Alarmists Attack iPad & Cloud Computing

The current hot buzzword in Information Technology (IT) circles is “cloud computing,” the concept of a shared grid of computer resources, made available to a wide range of consumers in an on-demand, self-service and pay-as-you-go fashion. Even those not immersed in the arcane details of IT are aware of the latest must have techno-doodad from Apple Computer—the iPad. Proving that they can find a dark cloud to go with any silver lining, the perennial eco-pessimists from Greenpeace have declared that the combination of iPads and cloud computing are going to greatly accelerate mankind's march to a planet frying future.

The IT industry is currently engaged in a mad scramble to define the future of data processing based on the concept of cloud computing. In the process of doing so, a number of high-tech heavy hitters—including Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft and a legion of silicon valley start-ups—are racing to build huge new data centers containing hundreds of thousands of computer servers each. It is certainly true that data centers are getting bigger all the time.

Data Center Knowledge recently put together a list of the world's 10 largest data centers, ranging between 400,000 and 1.1 million square feet. The list includes such super-sized data centers as the Vegas SuperNAP, Microsoft's container data center and the Lakeside Technology Center. Filling these cavernous data centers are rack upon rack of new computer servers. Google is rumored to run more than 2 million servers while Microsoft is adding 30,000 new machines each month.

The Gothic style data center at 350 East Cermak, Chicago.

Number one on the list is the Lakeside Technology Center, located at 350 East Cermak in Chicago, a 1.1 million square foot multi-tenant data center hub owned by Digital Realty Trust. It is one of the world’s largest carrier hotels and the nerve center for Chicago’s commodity markets. The huge Gothic style building was originally built to house the printing presses for Yellow Book and the Sears Catalog. Now the facility houses data centers for 70 tenants including several major financial firms. What isn't widely known is that the renovated building has earned a US Green Building Council Leed Gold rating for energy efficiency and low environmental impact. But opportunities to improve efficiency using cloud computing extend beyond renovating or building new data centers.

One of the enticing possibilities of cloud computing is the ability to “follow the moon,” in which processing load is shifted from data center to data center, circling the globe in 24 hours. This is partly to take advantage of lower off-peak electricity rates at night but also because cooler nighttime temperatures minimizes the amount of air conditioning needed to keep the grid of servers operating. As anyone who is familiar with large computer installations can tell you, the amount of energy required for HVAC at a data center is equal to or more than that consumed by the actual computer equipment. Small companies can not afford to have data centers spread around the world, but a large cloud provider can.

Ignoring the fact that many IT companies are among the greenest businesses on Earth, Greenpeace has announced that “the launch of quintessential cloud computing devices like the Apple iPad, which offer users access to the "cloud" of online services like social networks and video streaming, can contribute to a much larger carbon footprint of the Information Technology (IT) sector than previously estimated.” In support of their claim they have published a new “report” that lays out a bunch of statistics and projections.

That report would have us all believe that cloud computing, driven by an orgy of consumer demand for iPad like devices, will triple IT greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In the report “Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change,” Greenpeace claims, that at current growth rates, data centers and telecommunication networks will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020 (1,963,000 million kWh). “That is more than triple their current consumption and more than the current electricity consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined,” their website proclaims, breathlessly. This is their reasoning from the report:

The cloud is growing at a time when climate change and reducing emissions from energy use is of paramount concern. With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy. For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That ‘somewhere’ is data centres - massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy.

Supporting this claim that burgeoning data centers will consume “incredible amounts” of energy are a number of tables and illustrations. Typical of these is the figure shown below, which purports to show a comparison of different companies' data centers, partcularly power consumption from a green perspective.

Cloud computing companies' power use.

The first thing to note is the inclusion of nuclear power as dirty, thereby raising the amount of “pollution” supposedly generated by the data centers. If the concern is for heightened global warming because of IT, nuclear power is a net positive since it does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. It should not be listed here with coal plant emissions. Just another example of knee jerk anti-nuclear environmentalism. The second thing to notice is that this is a very short list of a few selected sites, several of which are in coal heavy states—care for a little cherry picking, anyone?

In reality, the builders of these massive new cloud data centers are actively seeking locations that minimize environmental impact and maximize green energy use. If one ignores the figures and reads the text of the report, it becomes clear that even Greenpeace recognizes the new sites are not the same old energy sinks as existing data centers. Specifically this passage:

Yahoo! is currently building a $150 million US dollar data centre near Buffalo, New York, which will be completed in May 2010. The site was chosen in part due to the low cooling costs expected in the region and the ability to use fresh air cooling, as well as the ready access to low- carbon and low-cost hydro power. The New York Power Authority has approved 10 megawatts of low-cost hydro power for a first phase of construction for a Yahoo! facility. A second phase, expected in the spring of 2012, would receive an additional five megawatts of power.

Exaggerating dirty power use is not the only intentionally misleading information in the Greenpeace report. Greenpeace based much of their information on a 2008 report called “SMART 2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age,” produced by The Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). That study predicted rapid growth in the IT industry and that, because of the rapid economic expansion in places like India and China, demand for IT services will quadruple by 2020. The figure below shows what Greenpeace claims are current and future CO2 emissions caused by IT and the growing cloud.

IT & cloud computing GHG emissions.

Note that IT is lumped in with communications and PCs and their associated devices, in order to arrive at the total of 830 million metric tons of CO2e. IT is only 14% of that total and will only grow to 18% of the total in 2020, yet it is IT that is portrayed as the villain here. What is not reported is the portion of global energy IT actually uses, an oversight that can only be intentional.

According to a 2007 study, prepared for the US EPA by Jonathan G. Koomey of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, the total amount of energy used by data centers world wide was around 130 billion kWh, or about 0.8% of total world electricity consumption in 2005. On a global basis this is less than the airline industry or shipping, let alone automobiles or heavy industry. Why are these green wingnuts picking on IT? Simply because the iPad and cloud computing have been in the news lately, and those who practice “cause” driven politics seek publicity like a moth seeks a flame.

Another thing to note is the use of the disingenuous measurement “CO2 equivalent” when referring to carbon dioxide emissions. This obfuscatory term combines other greenhouse gases with actual CO2 emissions, based on their supposed impact on global warming. Methane (CH4) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are calculated to be many times more effective than CO2, 25 times for methane 289 times for nitrous oxide. Adding these gases in as CO2e inflates the real carbon dioxide levels, giving the impression that AGW is happening even faster than the IPCC predictions. This is purely a propaganda play by climate change alarmists, a way to increase the perceived threat without any real change (see “Climate Change Spin Doctors” for more).

Greenpeace is not alone in trying to link cloud computing to environmental concerns. Two policy wonks with overactive imaginations submitted a paper entitled “Smart Metering the Clouds,” to the 18th IEEE International Workshops on Enabling Technologies. In it they propose “a fiscally driven multi-state level policy where energy companies can use a common strategy to drive down the waste and increase efficiency while still staying competitive.” This sounds like the common drivel put out by any anti-globalization NGO but this paper goes even farther.

“As cloud computing becomes increasingly pervasive, the data center energy consumption attributable to cloud computing is climbing, despite the clarion call of action to reduce consumption and reverse environmental effects,” states the paper's abstract. Writing on his blog, co-author Tarry Singh explains the true impact of cloud computing and their paper's purpose:

Think like electric grids that powered the rest of the world in the late 19th/early 20th century. Think like how automobile technology and industry transformed the way the whole world communes. The only thing that remained was that we all used the black gold or the fossil fuels to fire up all these initiatives. Mass production of all consumer goods and then selling of the same consumer goods, including basic amenities such as Water, Housing, and Food etc. will be done via the cloud and then measured in the cloud. This is what our paper was intended to help the world understand.

“I am in full agreement with Greenpeace that this will definitely lead to a much warmer planet eventually as Data Centers become the grids of tomorrow,” Singh continues. The proffered solution? Government regulation, of course. He fears that, left to their own devices, people will start using the Internet for all sorts of useful things, the economies of countries around the world might start to grow uncontrollably, and no one will be held accountable. Here is Singh's horrible vision of the future:

Billions of people will be using super devices such as iPad to connect to the internet and do everything in the cloud. Laundry, washing, bills, entertainment, schooling…everything. This demand generation will be unsustainable if we are not able to control and regulate the use while still promoting more internet use since it is bound to help economies grow but to somehow manage to keep them in control so they don’t go into overdrive. Best places are obviously to pass bills in order to observe how data centers are performing but also laying the moral and fiscal responsibility by the consumer to act individually as well.

Unmanaged economic growth; people doing “everything in the cloud,” by Jove, we can't have that! I'm not quite sure how to do laundry in the cloud, but next thing you know, people will start believing they actually deserve individual freedom and comfortable, productive lives. Of course, greens have never had a problem with telling all the rest of us how we must live our lives. Surely you can see that humanity must be enslaved in order to protect nature? And as we all know, those multi-national corporations out there that bring people all those horrid consumer products are at the center of the conspiracy to destroy planet Earth.

To be sure, the target of Greenpeace's ire is the IT industry, even though the report that they draw their statistics from shows IT data centers as generating the smallest portion of the current and projected GHG emissions due to cloud computing. Realizing that most nerds and technology geeks, if offered a choice between global warming and their high-tech toys, would tell the greens to pound sand, Greenpeace offered this dénouement:

To be clear: We are not picking on Apple. We are not dissing the iPad. But maybe someone can come up with an app that calculates the carbon footprint of using different web sites based on their location and energy deals. Apple is the master of promotion, and while we marvel at the sleek unpolluted design of the iPad, we need to think about where this is all leading and how like all good surfers we can make sure our environment stays clean and green.

Trying to tie Apple's “unpolluted” design to lowering emissions and the lame attempt to associate surfer dudes to web surfing couch potatoes seems rather desperate—it is as though Greenpeace, realizing that they might have alienated a larger demographic group than their own, felt the need to sooth any ruffled geeky feathers. Being a web surfing couch potato myself, I find their words ring hollow. As was stated, Greenpeace is really after the evil IT industry, not the tech-toy besotted consumer.

A Clear View of the Cloud

Both Singh and Greenpeace have it totally wrong: cloud computing is a way to lower energy use and by extension, GHG emissions. I have already mentioned the “follow the moon” processing paradigm, which can result in significant savings in data center cooling costs (as much as 50% in northern locations during the winter). There are other technological advances that seem to have escaped the green IT experts' notice. Primary among them is a radical decrease in Watts per computer cycle—using new server hardware, computer power takes less electricity than ever before.

As can be seen in the figure below, taken from the Koomey report, a typical computer server used about 250 Watts of electrical power five years ago. I can tell you from first hand experience in data center planning that the projected power savings shown in this diagram have been realized with new low-power multi-core processors and energy saving peripheral devices. And advancing technology promises even greater savings to come. You can be sure that IT is interested in the saving power because power costs money. One medium sized data center I know projected a savings of more than $1 million per year in electricity simply by replacing 5,000 outdated servers. Efficiently managed data centers run on a 3-4 year replacement cycle for servers, so the turnover time is relatively short when compared with housing (~50-100 years) or even automobiles (~10-20 years).

Server power consumption per installed unit.

In the past, the number of computers installed in a data center was dictated by peak usage. For many companies, the variation between slack times and peak demand can be a factor of ten or even a hundred fold. In most traditional data centers, equipment, once installed, is never turned off. This means that most of the time servers are idling, doing no useful work. Amazon got into the cloud business because they needed a large amount of processing capacity during the Christmas shopping season, but found all those servers setting idle during other times of the year.

Amazon's driving motivation to create a cloud was to recouping some of the considerable expense of buying and running all that hardware by renting time on those computers during non-peak periods. This means that other companies do not need to purchase computers of their own, computers which would set idle most of the time but still consume power and require air conditioning. Contrary to the critics' assertions given above, cloud computing will lead to fewer servers around the world, not more.

Another new technology, whose benefits seem to have eluded the notice of the greens, is server virtualization. Virtualization products by VMware and Red Hat can move running virtual machines transparently to the applications they are running. When the demand in a data center drops, remaining active virtual machines can be consolidated on a handful of physical servers and the idled machines shut down. For many data centers, dynamic power management alone could save 50-75% on power use. The larger the number of servers, the more diverse the workloads, the more effective this capability becomes.

Cloud computing will allow many companies to avoid the need to scale their data centers for peak demand. Instead, they will rent more capability from public cloud providers when the need arises. In the industry this is called “cloud bursting,” temporarily renting extra capacity on an as-needed basis. This saves companies money and reduces the overall number of servers in the world. Potentially, many companies could forgo having data centers of their own. Big data centers shared by thousands of customers can be more efficient than small, individual data centers. It is the computing equivalent of regional electric power pools, matching resources to demand in the most efficient way possible.

The SMART 2020 report thinks that cloud computing can be a positive technology. One of the things they recommend is travel substitution—the use of virtual meetings and telecommuting to eliminate actual travel. They estimate that through virtual meetings and flexible work arrangements the US could reduce CO2 emissions by 70–130 MMT and save $20–40 billion a year by 2020. Add other improvements in information and communications technology and the US could realize energy and fuel savings of $140-240 billion dollars while lowering CO2 emissions by as much as 22%. Sounds like cloud computing has a silver lining after all.

On the personal front, a slim, energy efficient tablet or PDA is certainly less power hungry than a laptop or a traditional PC. Many folks really don't need a PC—they don't write programs or run long processing jobs—all they need is an efficient way to access data from the net, do online shopping and banking, watch movies, listen to music, read email or tweet with their friends. Certainly, querying for data on Google or Bing is more energy efficient than having to drive to the library and consulting paper books (see “Google Raises Your Carbon Footprint”).

The iPad and its competitors are much more energy efficient ways of doing a literature search than rummaging through the stacks at the local library. Reading books or newspapers on an iPad or Kindle is unarguably greener than cutting down trees, making paper, printing hard copy and shipping it to stores and homes. No, once again the short sighted, know-nothing greens have attacked a technology they should be cheering on. The future of the iPad and cloud computing is both bright and green, despite the histrionics of dim-bulb climate change alarmists. They claim to love nature, but it is human progress that they hate.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

Cloud Computing

Interesting article on emissions, power usage and cloud computing. If anyone only knew the direction of things back when things really got moving. I started using the internet in the late '90s, and it's simply amazing to see how things are today.

Thanks for the great info.


iPad is more energy efficient - from energimærkning

Hi Doug, I totally agree to that iPad is more energy efficient. A really good post and great illustration especially the Server power consumption per installed unit.

Cheers from Energimærkning

Green Weenies

As usual, the green crowd is long on outrage and short on brains. My company is big on teleconferencing and all company paperwork is done on computer. We save petrol and trees and will save even more as the cloud expands.