All IT companies and their partners must take more care to ensure the datacentres they use are operated sustainably, according to a new report scoring major global datacentre operators on their power use and efficiency.
A 52-page report from Greenpeace, How Clean is your Cloud?, looks at 14 major datacentre operators – including the likes of Amazon, Rackspace, Salesforce, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, HP, and Facebook. Many operators and their customers may be focusing on rapid expansion without sufficiently considering the long-term impact, it suggested.
"The engine that drives the cloud is the datacentre. Datacentres are the factories of the 21st century information age, containing 1,000s of computers that store and manage our rapidly growing collection of data for consumption at a moment's notice," the report said. "These cloud datacentres consume a tremendous amount of electricity; some consume the equivalent of nearly 180,000 homes."
Tom Dowdall, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace International, said many of the companies either own or rent datacentre capacity in the UK – HP and IBM are two examples. "The same choices between sourcing dirty or clean renewable energy also apply to [companies in] the UK," he said.
It is perfectly possible for IT providers to select clean energy sources. "For example, Newport datacentre has chosen a 100-per-cent-renewables energy supply," Dowdall said.
Dowdall said Greenpeace would have liked to look at UK companies and locations specifically in the report, including the London datacentre hub, but simply didn't have the time or capacity .
Lack of transparency
He added that one of the biggest problems is a lack of transparency, which makes it very difficult for customers to work out which providers are best. The data in Greenpeace's report reflects the publicly available information.
"Unfortunately there is very little direct from the companies themselves, which are the only ones that can provide the actual data. Since 2010 we have provided all the companies in the previous 'dirty data' and 'How clean is your cloud?' report with our estimates and conclusions in advance and requested specific information direct from the companies," Dowdall explained.
Akamai and Google are two which provided actual clear data to Greenpeace. On the other hand, Amazon was "a clear example" of a company that claims Greenpeace's estimates are wrong, but had not provided further information to enable the lobby group to make a more accurate assessment, said Dowdall.
"Every company could ensure everyone can make a more accurate assessment by being transparent about how much energy they use and how it is generated. When transparency is lacking, our report aims to increase the debate and openness in an industry that has been traditionally incredibly secretive," he said.
Many IT companies have already spent and are continuing to spend millions of pounds a year on the electricity required to run one or more datacentres; for those who operate their own datacentres, this is the biggest operating cost by far. A reliable supply of electricity is critical for operation, Dowdall noted.
"This means the companies do have considerable expertise in purchasing electricity for their operations. In fact, Google even has its own energy company (Google Energy) for this reason," he added.
Greenpeace has been acting globally – including at Apple Ireland's HQ in Cork (pictured, above right) – in an attempt to raise awareness of the issue, which it sees as becoming increasingly urgent.
Customers of power utilities that are choosing between providers could have a big influence, he said, both on the investment plans of power utilities and government energy policy.
"There have been dramatic strides made in improving the energy-efficiency design of the facilities and the thousands of computers that go inside. However, despite significant improvements in efficiency, the exponential growth in cloud computing far outstrips these energy savings," the report continued. "Companies must look not only at how efficiently they are consuming electricity, but also the sources of electricity."
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