Can Cloud Computing Make the Internet Greener?

1Executive Summary

The power of cloud computing can offer web companies access to a massive amount of Internet infrastructure and services on demand. But can it also make computing and the Internet more energy efficient? Some analysts are starting to think so, due to the cloud’s fundamental use of shared infrastructure, multiple-user environments and economies of scale.

As Jonathan Koomey, Project Scientist and Professor, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, explained at the Green:Net conference recently, there are two main ways that cloud computing can help reduce the energy consumption of the Internet. First, shared computing space accommodates diverse users, which can help eek more processing out of less equipment. Second, cloud computing vendors are able to distribute the cost of energy-efficiency upgrades over their large systems, which is a quick way to make the Internet more efficient.

In the cloud, IT equipment gets accessed by many users, not just one IT firm’s internal users. A cloud operator can manage those different users across their equipment, putting a higher percentage of its resources to work. (Add in virtualization, which divvies up individual servers resources between multiple users, and even more of a data center’s resources are mobilized.) Better use of the equipment could lead to an improvement in energy efficiency of servers.

That’s the case for Akamai, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that runs the world’s largest content delivery network. Bobby Blumofe, Akamai’s senior VP of network operations, tells us by dynamically balancing customers’ traffic loads across its infrastructure, it can run its servers at 2 to 3 times higher utilization than its customers could do in-house. Through better utilization of equipment, Akamai says it can accommodate its total customer traffic load using 2 to 4 times less server equipment than its customers would use without its help. That ultimately translates into energy saved and carbon emissions reduced. Each server eliminated saves roughly 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, and 3,000 pounds of of carbon dioxide.

Ken Oestreich, VP of product marketing for Egenera, a company that sells software and gear to optimize data center technology, says the shared-space principle of the cloud makes it fundamentally more energy efficient. He writes on his blog:

Consider the principles of Utility Computing (the architecture behind “clouds”): Only use compute power when you need it. Re-assign it when-and-where it’s required. Retire it when it’s not needed at all. Dynamically consolidate workloads. . . [P]ower (and electricity cost) is inherently minimized because capital efficiency is continuously maximized.

The other, less obvious, energy benefit of the cloud is that cloud operators can more quickly and economically upgrade their massive networks to use energy-efficient hardware and implement energy-efficient practices. And that makes the overall Internet more energy efficient. Think about it: it’s far faster and simpler for individual cloud operators to implement these changes in one fell swoop than it is for many individual companies to spend the upfront capital requirements to upgrade individual internal IT equipment.

Increased purchases of energy-efficient IT can be crucial to helping the Internet reduce energy consumption. According to Koomey, energy consumption of the Internet has doubled between 2000 and 2006, but Internet traffic far more than doubled during that same period. That means the Internet actually got more efficient. That’s in large part due to companies buying newly available, more energy-efficient technology as part of their IT refresh cycles, says Koomey.

The cloud might offer some inherent energy-efficiency opportunities, but cloud vendors are just starting realize and tout their green credentials. At a panel on Green IT at the AlwaysOn Green East conference earlier this year, moderator Chris Mines, a senior VP at Forrester Research, suggested the “green cloud” as a possible new marketing buzz term for the year. None of the panelists, who hailed from Microsoft, IBM, and Akamai, seemed too excited over the term, and the discussion quickly moved on.

That could be changing: Akamai tells us it has recently begun to point out energy savings as an added benefit of its content delivery service to potential customers. I’m guessing that later this year, and into 2010, the cloud will be become the latest tech to “go green.”

Katie Fehrenbacher is the Founder and Editor of Earth2Tech.

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