Greenpeace spies soot lining in cloud data centers
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.
You too, Facebook
Data centers have to be close to the population centers where they supply compute capacity, particularly for latency-sensitive workloads. AWS is in Virginia because that's the dead center of the Eastern seaboard of the United States, and it is close to Washington, DC. Cheap coal power is no doubt welcome, but it is a secondary issue that seems to have escaped Greenpeace.
Apple's existing data center in Newark, California, and the $1bn "iDataCenter" in Maiden, North Carolina, a 500,000 square feet behemoth, were tallied up. The Apple data center in Newark was pretty clean, with only 8 per cent of its juice coming from coal and 22 per cent from nuclear, but that Maiden data center is dirty, with 62 per cent of its 100 megawatts of juice expected to come from coal and 32 per cent from nuke plants.
Even Facebook's shiny new data center in Prineville, Oregon , which is completely cooled by outside air and which sports energy-efficient and open source server designs to go along with the open source data center specs, did not escape Greenpeace's marking pen. That Prineville data center will get about 63 per cent of its 40 megawatts from coal, about the same as a data center that Facebook is now building in Forest City North Carolina, which will get another 31 per cent from nuke plants. Across its five existing rented data centers and two self-built data centers, Facebook has a coal intensity of 52.8 per cent on the Greenpeace scale. (See if those updates to the Greenpeace Facebook page get updated in a timely fashion, eh?)
Google does a bit better, with a an aggregate of 34.7 per cent of its electricity for three operational data centers – in Dalles, Oregon; St Ghislain, Belgium; and Eemshaven, the Netherlands – and five others under construction. But the newer Google data centers are heavier on the dirty fuels, which is what has Greenpeace miffed. (See if those searches for Greenpeace International come to the top of the page, eh?)
Greenpeace did the math on five HP data centers – four in the States and one in the United Kingdom, which burned around 20 megawatts each – and gave them a 49.4 coal intensity rating because the centers are heavily depending on that sooty fuel to make their juice. Four of IBM's data center – a 60 megawatter in Colorado and a 30 megawatter in North Carolina plus one in Ireland and another in Singapore – came in at 51.6 coal-powered. Microsoft has a mix of data centers using lots of renewable and nuclear fuel and some that are heavy on the coal and nukes, and it averaged a 34.1 per cent coal intensity in the Greenpeace grading scale.
Yahoo! got the closest thing to good grades, with an 18.3 per cent coal intensity rating across six data centers. The 18 megawatt chicken coop in Lockport, New York, and the 7.2 megawatt one under construction in Quincy, Washington, helping raise its average, as did the existing 26 megawatt facility in Quincy. Yahoo! data centers in Virginia and Nebraska are near very dirty parts of the electric grid, which hurt its grade considerably. The 7.2 megawatt Yahoo! center in Avenches, Switzerland, will have 55 per cent of its juice coming from renewable energy and the local grid there gets about 40 per cent of its juice from nuke plants, so this center didn't hurt the grading for Yahoo! either. ®