Clean Versus Dirty Cloud Computing

Everyone is moving to the cloud, leaving giant imprints on networks globally and potentially creating an environmental mess that may be hard to clean up, according to a recent report from {complink 1131|Cisco Systems Inc.}

Internet and most other data traffic is fast migrating to the cloud, and some industry observers are saying mobile IT specialists might soon be doing even enterprise networking and communication management activities on tablets. The Cisco report supports at least the view that cloud data is growing at an exponential pace. “Cloud computing traffic will grow 12-fold from 130 exabytes to reach a total of 1.6 zettabytes annually by 2015, a 66 percent compound annual growth rate,” the company said.

Perhaps you are wondering what that translates into. I have to admit to being equally mystified by the numbers. What exactly is an exabyte or zettabyte, and what can we compare these with if we wish to make sense of them? Luckily, Cisco didn't leave us in the dark. The Internet and networking equipment vendor says 1.6 zettabytes of data is equivalent to:

  • 22 trillion hours of streaming music
  • 5 trillion hours of business Web conferencing with a webcam
  • 1.6 trillion hours of online high-definition (HD) video streaming
  • What are the implications of this fast growth for the high-tech industry? What kind of environmental footprint will this leave, and who should bear the burden of cleaning it up? Who's going to be supplying the equipment to support this enormous traffic and storage? Who will service the equipment and provide software support? Where will these servers be hosted, and what are the security implications for companies, nations, and individuals?

    We can't answer all these questions here, so why don't we focus on what I think will quickly become a public relations hazard for the high-tech industry if it doesn't find ways to counter the growing impression that cloud computing traffic will hurt the environment. Don't blame consumers; a large chunk of cloud computing traffic occurs in the cloud itself, rather than externally, according to Cisco. Last year, 77 percent of cloud traffic remained within the datacenter, and the company expects this figure to drop only to 76 percent by 2015.

    My conclusion from this is that cloud computing is far more complicated than many admit, and companies will have to spend a lot to figure out how to use the technology responsibly. Other researchers have reached a similar conclusion.

    A recent report by Ecodesk, a sustainability data publishing site, says the shift to cloud computing is affecting carbon emission targets in the electronics industry. Companies like Samsung, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and Fujitsu are reporting higher emissions because of their increased use of cloud computing.

    CO2 emission figures are also rising at these companies (particularly at Samsung and Intel) because they chose to include figures from their entire supply chain in their reports. This means they are not limiting themselves to internal operations and are therefore considered “responsible” companies, Ecodesk says. “On the surface they look like big polluters,” but in reality they've adopted an approach that should raise overall performance and cut total emissions as supply chain partners comply.

    “Tech companies in particular are leading the charge and being very bold by forfeiting their own emission targets to embrace the emissions produced by third parties,” said Robert Clarke, the CEO of Ecodesk. “The shift to embrace cloud computing and supply chains has meant that each company that embraces what we feel is the most comprehensive model experience their own emissions shoot up, although the overall impact on the environment is reduced significantly by cloud computing and supply chain imperatives.”

    Ecodesk's suggestion for managing cloud computing activities is for companies to ensure they deal only with partners whose services are “clean,” rather than “dirty.” Clean cloud computing services providers “use renewable power sources and highly advanced efficiency in power consumption, from lighting to cooling.”

    How clean are your company's cloud services? If you don't have a ready answer, that's already a problem.

    19 comments on “Clean Versus Dirty Cloud Computing

    1. Barbara Jorgensen
      December 6, 2011

      Hi Anna–first comment again! I found this really interesting becuase I just was involved with a Webinar that came to a different conclusion. The general idea is that because there is less physical structure in the cloud, there will be more virtual computing–less equipment and manufacturing–and therefore less of an impact on the environment. It is too soon to tell, of course, but a great topic to keep on top of.

    2. Ariella
      December 6, 2011

      Anna, there are projects underway to test the feasibility of operating data centers on renewable energy from solar and wind power. See

    3. AnalyzeThis
      December 6, 2011

      @Barbara, those were my thoughts as well… to me, the move to the cloud is not a negative from an environmental standpoint. The cloud has many issues, but I don't think hurting the environment is one of the downsides.

      Security? That's of course a valid concern. I think that will be the biggest challenge and concern that the technology will need to overcome.

      As for how clean my services are, I can tell you I certainly use less computing resources than I did years ago. Remember the old days, with giant rooms filled with giant machines? Those days are over; everything has shrunk and continues to shrink.

    4. bolaji ojo
      December 6, 2011

      Ariella, Thanks for posting this resource. Companies operating cloud computing server plants can benefit from using renewable energy because of their facilities can often be located in remote areas where they can benefit from solar energy, for instance.

    5. bolaji ojo
      December 6, 2011

      DennisQ, The size of server farms (yes, they call them farms!) that companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have to maintain to support cloud computing is enormous and I suspect that's what Cisco and Ecodesk may be referring to. The individual user may be leaving smaller footprints behind but the support technology behind our smartphones, tablets and notebooks is leaving giant marks across the planet.

      I'm not sure if my own technology footprint is as small as yours, too. I am at any time staring at a multitude of screens (my laptop and the external monitor), phones and of course, the fax/printer/scanner combo. Then there's the turnover rate. The phones last about one to two years, the computers three years, the printer/scanner/fax about six months (I've tried many brands and they still seem to break down too fast) and even if I haven't already, the probability of my getting a tablet is high. That's a lot of gear!

    6. Ariella
      December 6, 2011

      Yes, Bolaji. The particular challenge the experiment is dealing with is keeping the power on even when there is a lack of sun or wind in one area by seamlessly shifting the data center to another power source where there is an adequate supply of those energy sources. The idea is to avoid having to use traditional electric sources as backup.  

    7. Anna Young
      December 6, 2011

      @Ariella, that will be interesting. I will check out the links. Thank you for your comment.

    8. Ariella
      December 6, 2011

      You're most welcome, Anna.

    9. Anna Young
      December 6, 2011

      @Barbara, thank you for being the first to comment again -lol. I appreciate your view . However, I understand that with Cloud computing there is no standard measurement or parameter which binds all opinion to indicate better or worst result for the environment. I think it is worth noting that the increase efficiency of the hardware and that of the components in most cloud data centres and coupled with the increase in usage of these components means or suggest that we are doing more work per unit of energy consumed than before. Hence, research suggest that this might significantly  increase even more, as a result this is bound to impact the environment. Like you said it is a topic to keep on top of.

    10. _hm
      December 6, 2011

      I am more concerened about secuirty aspect too. What is security of data? Also, for local data when I erase it, it is gone for ever. But once it is on cloud, it will always be available in some backup media.

    11. prabhakar_deosthali
      December 7, 2011

      Cloud computing means all those data centers and network infrastructure connecting those millions of users to these data centers , has to be on 24×7. 

      In a localised IT environment such was not the case. The servers could go offline on weekends, PCs & Printers shut down after office hours, Laptops would be on standby and so on.

      The shift to cloud apparent;y saves on local IT infrastruture no doubt but the instrastructure the cloud relies on has to be much more robust and always on line. That increase the energy consumption many fold and that is the real problem we have to face as the clouds get bigger and bigger.


      Another aspect is of user data – most of it will still remain on the cloud even after it has served its purpose and can safely be deleted but the owner of data will be lazy to do the necessary housekeeping . And that will make the cloud dirty – full of a lot of garbage data.



    12. Barbara Jorgensen
      December 7, 2011

      Thanks Anna!


    13. pjoygordon
      December 9, 2011

      This is an important debate, given the burgeoning Cloud Computing trend.  Let's use a Life Cycle Analysis perspective, which includes a wider scope than CO2 emissions from powering and cooling data centers alone.  Barb Jorgensen mentioned the reduced amount of hardware; this is key.  When customer-premise products are fewer and smaller owing to Cloud Computing, the overall number and weight of hardware decreases — thus requiring less extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, scrap, packaging, transportation, and end-of-life transportation and treatment (whether waste or recycling–still a significant impact).  Data centers have it in their best interest to use as few servers as possible and in the most efficient ways — 80%+ utilization.  Whereas customer-premise hardware may be used a fraction of this–therefore in aggregate requiring a lot more hardware across customers.  Check out a webinar on this topic:

    14. William K.
      December 9, 2011

      @pjoygordon, I find your assertion a bit hard to interpret. Computing done on a customers machines on a customers site does not need to have the wasteful updates of hardware every few months, probably consumes less power, and probably is both more reliable and more secure.  

      One option that I have seen overlooked for cooling any server system is the use of local outdoor ambient air, which in most parts of the world is cool enough to remove an adequate amount of heat from a server installation. In many parts of the world the waste heat from a server would be a welcome assist for building comfort heating, at least much of the year. 

      My other concern is about this huge quantity of data floating around in the cloud. IT may be adequately secure, but how big of a power failure will it take to lose a million dollars worth of data? I am not speaking about a utilities failure, where the UPS takes over and things are OK, I mean an data center power distribution panel, downstream of the UPS, feeding an array of servers. The soft spot well inside the armor. The glitch sensitive belly that nobody wants to admit even exists. WE all know that the economics of scale mandate the single UPS scenario, but we may not choose to think about the distribution area between that UPS and all of those servers. But that segment is subject to damage and failure, and probably not nearly as well designed as it should be. Also, not as rubust or reliable.

    15. Clairvoyant
      December 9, 2011

      Not sure that I agree to your opinion, Prabhakar. The users of cloud computing would not need to consume as much power from storing and processing data on their own computers. The computer devices can also be smaller and more efficient. This would out-weigh the power consumption of servers.

    16. Anna Young
      December 10, 2011

      @Pjoygordon, thank you for your view and contribution to this important discussive topic. I will check out the link.

    17. t.alex
      December 13, 2011

      So true. Imagine if nowadays we still use lots of big and noisy desktop computers instead of relying on cloud, how dirty would it be.

    18. Cryptoman
      December 16, 2011

      When I hear the phrase 'cloud computing', I just cannot help thinking about the following issues:

      – Is my valuable data safe out there so that I don't need to keep a locak backup?

      – Will my access be reliable and fast enough 24/7 or there will be unavoidable and annoying interruptions?

      – Who else will access my valuable data? How easy is it to get hold of the commercially sensitive documents I will be storing on the could?

      – If something goes wrong, who is legally liable and to what extent? Can all my damages be compensated for somehow?

      I am sure many people have similar worries to the ones I have listed above. Cloud computing is a great idea in terms of reducing CO2 footprint and improving storage and processing efficiency. However, I believe that such technologies need time to get more mature and to gain public confidence before they can achieve a widespread adoption.

    19. itguyphil
      December 16, 2011

      I agree. Studies have been done to show that virtualization and cloud computing actually help to save resources. Most of the machines suited for the task have energy-efficient components that are meant to last longer and consume less resources over time.

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