Ignore Greenpeace: The iPad Isn’t Bad News for Green IT

The iPad, one of the most anticipated consumer electronics devices since Apple’s own iPhone, goes on sale this week. Demand is brisk, judging by shipping dates that now stretch into mid-April at Apple’s online store. Add some generally positive reviews to the palpable buzz, and it looks like Steve Jobs has another hit on his hands.

But the positive reaction muted a little for greentech geeks this week when Greenpeace released its Make IT Green report (PDF). The report, which singled out the iPad as a “harbinger” of a new generation of cloud-dependent web tablets and mobile devices, forecasts that the cloud will consume 1.96 trillion kWh of energy by 2020, three times the 622.6 billion kWh consumed in 2007. Impressive as the figure sounds, the real cause for concern is not from cloud computing’s growing appetite for energy, but that the majority of that energy will be sourced from coal-fired power plants.

It’s a valid concern and one that threatens to dull cloud computing’s green sheen, but here are four reasons why you shouldn’t fear the iPad.

Apple’s Green Data Center

Officially, Apple hasn’t divulged the purpose behind its massive data center build in North Carolina, but the writing’s on the wall: cloud services. Apart from the scale of the project — nobody spends $1 billion to handle employee emails, file shares and collaboration suites — the company’s acquisition of Lala is further proof that Apple is betting big on the cloud. While this doesn’t necessarily add up to an energy efficient data center, the fact that Olivier Sanche is on the company’s payroll as Director of Global Data Center Operations is a good indicator. As eBay’s former data center guru, Sanche’s passion for energy efficiency and eco-friendly computing will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the facility’s server-packed aisles as they serve up media (and apps, lots of them) to iPad users.

Data Center Renewable Energy on the Rise

Greenpeace rightfully calls on web giants to wield their clout and insist on renewable energy for their data centers (much like my colleague Derrick has in the past). Guess what? They already are. Yahoo and VMware’s data centers in central Washington are hydro-powered. You can add Microsoft and Google to the list of companies that have sited data centers in areas serviced with cheap, environmentally desirable hydroelectric power. Unfortunately, Facebook didn’t quite anticipate the backlash for situating its first data center in a coal-powered region, but it’s a misstep it won’t likely repeat.

Accelerated Dematerialization

Here’s a reason to actually root for the iPad and growth of the web tablet market in general: dematerialization. Take the Kindle. According to the Cleantech Group, each one of Amazon’s e-readers, on average, delivers an estimated savings of 168 kg of CO2 per year. Strong iPad sales will help grow the e-book market (via its iBookstore); accelerate the dematerialization of dead tree books; and shift consumption to efficient cloud infrastructures from a publishing industry with comparatively high emissions due to manufacturing and transport. With other print publishers from magazines to newspapers eyeing the devices, as well, the potential for dematerialization could spread even futher.

A Multifaceted Cloud

The last, and perhaps most important reason why the iPad isn’t the harbinger of a cloud-based future that will wreak environmental havok is that the cloud is bigger than any single device or device category. Certainly, web tablets will increase media consumption and impact consumer-facing web services, but corporate IT also factors into cloud computing’s growth.

IBM, Verizon and AT&T continually add cloud capacity. However, their clouds are strictly targeted to businesses that want to grow their IT resources without adding more systems to their server rooms, or in some cases, building new data centers. If even a handful of efficient and expertly managed cloud computing centers end up displacing hundreds of server closets and/or dozens of past-their-prime data centers, it’s an environmental victory no matter how you cut it — and one that no army of media-consuming iPad users can diminish.

Question of the week

Does the iPad help or hurt cloud computing’s green image?
Relevant analyst in consumer electronics
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