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Greenpeace spies soot lining in cloud data centers

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Cloud computing may have a silver lining, but it's apparently covered in soot.

The silver lining is that public clouds compel companies to share servers, storage, and networks and run fewer machines at higher utilization rates than they would if they bought capacity individually. But for environmental watchdog Greenpeace International, this is not enough. The organization has issued a report to remind everyone that the world's biggest cloud providers are often dependent on coal-produced electricity for their operations – and has gone so far as to rank their major data centers by their sootiness.

To be fair, the data centers of Amazon, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, and Akamai, who are ranked in Greenpeace's How Dirty Is Your Data Center 2011 report, are probably not much different from the business where you work every day when it comes to dependency on coal for electricity generation. And ditto for the home that you return to every night. The world is still dependent on non-renewable energy sources – coal and nuclear with a smattering of oil and gas – to generate electricity.

According to statistics compiled by the World Coal Association, coal-fired plants generate more than 40 per cent of the electricity used by consumers and businesses worldwide, with the United States at around half of its juice coming from coal plants. South Africa and Poland are at 93 and 92 per cent, respectively, while China was at 79 per cent. (These statistics are from a 2008 report by the International Energy Agency, which has put together a garish chart showing electricity generation over time by fuel source running from 1972 to 2008. Renewable energy sources, geothermal, solar, and wind are only visible as a percentage of the total because global electricity generation has quadrupled over that time, to 20 million gigawatt hours.

The difference between normal businesses and citizens and cloud computing suppliers is that the latter often make a big deal about how efficiently they are running their IT operations inside the data center; they also often brag about well-designed and energy-sipping the power distribution and cooling operations inside their data centers, too. And that makes them easy – and Greenpeace thinks justified – targets for criticism.

Greenpeace opened up its report extolling the virtues of cloud computing – "data centres are the factories of the 21st century" and so on – and then almost immediately started to pour water on it.

"We analysed the data centre investments of 10 top global cloud companies and our findings show a trend across the industry towards extolling the external effects of IT products and services, while failing to take seriously the need to power this widespread aggregation of the world’s information with clean, renewable electricity," said the report writers.

So why focus on data centers when they only account for somewhere 3 per cent of the juice generated in the United States and somewhere between 1.5 to 2 per cent globally? Well, for one thing, Greenpeace cites statistics that expect data centers worldwide – not just cloud computing data centers, but all of them – to consume 12 per cent more juice per year going forward. More ominously, says Greenpeace, even though there are examples of data centers using renewable energy sources to power themselves – the Yahoo! chicken coop center in Lockport, New York powered by Niagara Falls and cooled by outside air most of the year is a good example – Greenpeace says that Google, Facebook, and Apple are starting to build data center clusters in North Carolina and in the Midwest where cheap and dirty coal-generated electricity is available; in developing economies, data center operators rely on diesel generators, which belch filth.

Greenpeace graded these ten cloud operators in relation to their transparency about how much power they use and how they are trying to reduce electricity use in their data centers. The environmentalists also looked at where the cloud operators were locating their data centers with regard to clean (renewable) and dirty (coal and nuclear) energy sources, and what the company as a whole was doing to mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions. Of the 30 different possible letter grades that Greenpeace could have given out across the 10 vendors, there were no As. There were four Bs, a lot of Cs and Ds, and seven Fs.

To give the ten cloudy data center operators in the study their grades, Greenpeace only looked at a subset of their data centers, some of which were not yet fully operational. The organization had to make a lot of estimates and did not always get cooperation from the vendors. Amazon Web Services, the subsidiary of the retailing giant that runs the EC2 compute cloud, told Greenpeace that its initial estimates for its power use were wrong, but did not provide any data showing where. Google said that Greenpeace's estimates for the data centers it examined were high, but similarly did not give out the correct numbers. The lack of transparency by Google, Amazon, and Twitter earned them all Fs in this category, and Twitter was noteworthy for getting straight Fs. (We'll see if Greenpeace's tweets get served up in a timely fashion now, eh?)

The detailed table of the facilities that Greenpeace examined estimated that across the six data centers operated by Amazon Web Services – three in Virginia and one in outside of Dublin, Ireland as well as two under construction in Oregon – the company had a coal intensity, a measure of the percentage of the electricity used by all the data centers that comes from coal-fired electric plants, of 28.5 per cent. If you didn't drill down into the report, you might not realize that the two new plants in Oregon will get 85.5 per cent of their juice from renewable energy, compared to around 45 per cent for coal and 35 per cent for nuclear in the three Virginia data centers. It seems a little disingenuous to give Amazon a D for siting its data centers when its two modern centers are largely powered by renewable energy.

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