At first glance it might be easy to consider that cloud computing is green. The name evokes nature, for a start, but beyond that one might immediately think to saving paper for print outs (as you can access your data anywhere), or not needing power hungry, constantly on servers in your office to back everything up.
However, it really isn’t that simple – quite simply because everywhere you personally are saving energy your cloud host needs to expend it. If you want to access your data, something has to be plugged in somewhere!
Microsoft (surprise, surprise) has helped release a report that claims cloud computing both reduces energy use and lowers carbon emissions. But then Greenpeace claims many data centres (where your cloud data is stored) are hugely un-green, using energy sources high in carbon such as coal. It is currently going after Facebook for this very reason.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says US data centres use 1.5 per cent of the country’s electricity and that by 2020 it will account for more tons of carbon emissions than the aviation industry.
The Greenpeace criticism didn’t stop with Facebook: it also put Apple in the spotlight, claiming its data centres also relied too heavily on coal for their power (alongside Amazon and, oh, Microsoft).
In retort, Apple claimed its new data centre, for the iCloud, will be the greenest data centre on the planet. How many of the old ones will still be needed, as data use continues to grow at an amazing rate, remains to be seen.
The Microsoft figures do add up on a personal level: businesses will save on energy bills. But to actually make cloud computing green, data centres need to be forced to use better energy sources. Of course, this is going to cost them more money – and it isn’t often that government feels the need to intervene for green rights against massive corporations.
And it gets worse. A report from the University of Melbourne showed that some cloud computing activity isn’t even more energy efficient at a fundamental level – such as instances where a large number of files are accessed and downloaded, rather than simply stored. Clearly the jury is still out, but right now it’s not looking good.
That said, at least cloud computing has the potential to be greener and this means the idea should certainly be pursued. As green issues continue to be high on the public agenda, organisations such as Greenpeace need to keep the pressure up; Facebook and the like rely a lot on public opinion, so if they’re publicly outed as being ‘ungreen’ it could make a serious dent in their public persona.
Right now, cloud computing isn’t particularly greener for the planet but will be for your company, and we can only hope in the end it will be better for everyone. So if you’re considering cloud solutions right now, you’d be advised to make the decision on other practicalities, rather than green ones.
Chris Marling contributes on behalf of Broadband Genie, the consumer advice and comparison website for broadband, smartphones and tablets.