I talk to a lot of people about Cloud Computing, and many of them do not have a good understanding of what the Cloud is or why they should care. But I have never found anyone as confused as Seamus Tiernan, a member of the Galway (Ireland) County Council. According to the UK Daily Telegraph (29 November 2011), Mr. Tiernan told the Infrastructure Committee meeting that his native Connemara would be ideal for cloud computing because this part of Ireland has heavy cloud cover for nine months of the year. Connemara is all of County Galway west of Lough Corrib, bounded on the west, south and north by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the east by the Invermore River, Loch Oorid, and the Maumturks mountains. He went on to indicate that the Government should be doing more to harness clean industries for the Connemara area and he named wind energy and cloud computing as two obvious examples. “Connemara in particular could become a centre of excellence for wind energy harnessing, as it is open to the Atlantic. Also in terms of cloud computing, we have dense thick fog for nine months of the year, because of the mountain heights and the ability to harness this cloud power, there is tremendous scope for cloud computing to become a major employer in this region.”
Never let facts ruin a good story. There is no Seamus Tiernan on the Infrastructure Committee of Galway County Council. Since he was described as a politician, it is actually easy to believe that the story is true, especially when it is printed in a well-respected newspaper.
Getting away from the cloudy logic, there is some basis to this statement. Is Cloud Computing a clean industry? Can a company claim “going to the Cloud” as part of their “going green” campaign?
Not an easy question to answer. Like all “Is it green?” questions there are at least two ways to look at it: locally and globally.
Are electric cars green? Locally, clearly yes. They do not pollute. They use less energy to run than a petroleum-powered vehicle, although most of that is due to the fact that they are significantly lighter and very weak from a performance standpoint. Also, if you can only go 35 miles before a six-hour fill-up, you tend to not travel very far and combine several errands into one trip. If you treated a petroleum-powered car with the same weight and performance characteristics exactly the same way, it would also have a significantly reduced local carbon footprint.
Globally, the answer is much more complicated. It depends on two factors: the additional energy and pollution caused by the creation of the car, especially the batteries; and how and where the recharging electric power is generated. I suspect that in many cases, the global pollution of an electric car currently is actually higher than a small petroleum-powered vehicle on a per-mile driven basis.
Electric cars are not new. In 1900, 40% of American cars were powered by steam, 38% by electricity, and only 22% by gasoline. The first car that Thomas Edison bought was a Baker electric car (made in Cleveland). Baker electric cars had a range of 50 miles between recharging, and this was over 100 years ago. Of course today’s electric cars are a lot safer, although a Baker electric car was the first vehicle to use seat belts, and reached speeds over 75 miles per hour. The demise of the early electric car was due to high cost, and the absence of a recharging or battery-exchanging infrastructure across the U.S.
What about the Cloud? What does it take to run the Cloud, and what gets shifted when a company “moves to the Cloud?” From a purely physical viewpoint, what gets shifted is IT infrastructure: primarily servers, storage, and networks. All of that is powered by electricity – a lot of electricity. More than one company has moved its datacenter solely because they could no longer get enough electrical power at their current facility.
Why so much power? The faster a processor runs the more power it takes to run it. For example, an Intel® Xeon® processor chip for a server at 1.86 GHz is rated at 45 watts, while the 3.06 GHz model is rated at 95 watts. These are just representative numbers as there are dozens of Intel server chip models, but the trend is fairly constant: power requirements go up faster than processor speed, and this trend is consistent across chip vendors.
Intel processors are also very good at converting electricity to heat, possibly better than almost anything else. If you put 100 blade servers in a rack, each with one or two high performance Intel chips, it can like putting 150 100-watt incandescent light bulbs in a very small closet. A good rule of thumb is that it takes about as much electricity to cool the server as it does to run it.
Locally, therefore, “moving to the Cloud” is definitely green. You have eliminated a lot of energy use and a lot of heat generation. This is all good. The global impact depends, again, on many factors. But the basic concept of the Cloud allows that global impact to be substantially reduced.
The Cloud is all about virtualization, using one physical device to act like many devices. In the case of servers, it lets a single physical server look exactly like a dozen or more servers, each running its own set of applications. This works because in most environments, applications are not always very busy. In your average IT shop, most servers are only running at 20-25% utilization. The power is there for those few times a day or month or year when they are needed. Think about your home computer. You probably leave it on most of the time because when you want it, you want it NOW – not in the two or more minutes it takes Windows to boot up. When you are sitting in front of it, you can be using anywhere from 10% to 100% of its processing capability. Some video games, editing movies, even standard office work tasks can drive utilization very high. But over the day, you are probably not using even 10% of the processing power you have. When you put applications into the Cloud, the Cloud Service Provider (CSP) is going to put many applications into the same server, and balance it across a lot of applications or customers. Typically, a CSP will run a server at 60-80% utilization.
Just using virtualization and spreading resources across many customers, a CSP can reduce energy utilization by about 50% over that used in the individual customers’ IT shops.
The Cloud is location independent. Within wide limits, your CSP’s data center can be almost anywhere. In the U.S., there is not much performance difference between a server 20 miles away and one 1,000 miles away. What a CSP needs at its data center is power and high-speed Internet connectivity. The data center does not have to be in a major city, it can be in a cornfield surrounded by wind towers or in a desert surrounded by solar cells.
There are of course other requirements. A CSP wants at least two separate power sources and at least two separate high-speed Internet connections for its data center for reliability reasons. It also needs to be accessible to the staff it takes to monitor and mange the facility, but many of those people can work from anywhere, using the Cloud.
The bottom line: move some or all of your IT infrastructure to the Cloud and honestly claim that you are going green, in at least that area. Even if you are using an in-house Public Cloud in the same facility, you will be improving your carbon footprint through virtualization.
The last word:
You may remember that in my last blog I indicated that I “plan to talk about how you and the CSP can agree on how you will jointly manage the risk” of moving to the Cloud. One of the best reasons to have a plan is so you know when things aren’t actually on the desired track. When I heard of the Galway County Council conversation, I decided the planned topic could wait until next year.
I wish you and your families a very happy holiday season.
Keep your sense of humor.