Is That Cloud Really Clean?The cloud — the ultimate solution to computer storage capacity — is becoming more and more a factor of life, but is there a day coming when it, too, will not hold enough data to satisfy the ever-growing needs of our technological society? That could be the case if one looks at the past decade or so, since we have all become increasingly dependent on its ability to store our data. As this begins to take on astronomical proportions, we could find our environment and resources strained to a breaking point.

According to Greenpeace International, these data farms are already consuming energy at a staggering rate. Apparently, almost every major player in the technology market relies heavily on the cloud for storage purposes while consumers use it to confidently save their preferences for everything from font colors to who they acknowledge as family, friends, or acquaintances. So with that in mind, we need to address how these data farms will be managed as they continue to grow and place a strain on our environment and resources.

Additionally, as our population grows, the need to communicate is expected to grow and bring a 50-fold increase (by the year 2020) in demand for cloud storage as we increasingly watch TV or movies, listen to our favorite music, share those precious photographs, and eventually even determine the way we work online. Accordingly, Greenpeace International incorporates a scorecard system that enables it to determine just how much energy companies like Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, and others are using and project their future needs. They also track how much will be spent, this year alone, in building more server farms. Further, the report addresses which consumers or businesses are placing the highest demand on these companies in order to satisfy their own — as well as their clients’ — lust for more and more information.

These demands require large amounts of electricity, which is why these data centers, data farms, or whatever name you wish to use are coming under closer scrutiny. These vast amounts of electricity are used in an attempt to keep the cost down, as companies require thousands of computers to store all of this data. Not only is the cost of the electricity a concern, however, but also access to the electricity, itself, and how its depletion will affect the environment. In its report, Greenpeace International states that some of these data servers may consume enough electricity to power 180,000 homes.

Here is a basic look at how some of the companies were scored by Greenpeace:

Company Energy Transparency Infrastructure Siting Energy Efficiency & GHG Mitigation Renewables & Advocacy
Amazon F F D F
Facebook D B B C
Google B C B A
Microsoft C D C C
Yahoo! C B B B
Twitter F D F D

Scorecard grading is from Greenpeace, with table drawn by me.

Looking at these grades, one could conclude that, with the exception of Google, most of the major technology companies are doing a poor job of using energy efficiently. While this may be the case, there are other factors at play here besides what Greenpeace has presented to us.

On the positive side, the building of each of these data centers requires a force of skilled laborers, meaning employment opportunities, which are sorely needed in our slowly improving economic climate. In addition, the local community benefits when site builders file for the required building permits and pay their fees. As a result, cities have the increasing revenue to provide their populace with necessary services. These data centers will also bring in additional funds to the local power company, which will have to provide additional sources of electrical power. In turn, any profits that the company makes will be paid out to its shareholders, further providing funds that will fuel the economic recovery in that area. So, before we can evaluate if these data farms are too costly on resources, we must look at the whole picture — from the additional sources of revenue to new job creation. Are they good or bad? Only time and experience will give us the definitive answer.

However, I realize that Greenpeace judges how changes can positively or negatively affect our environment as well as how they will impact future generations. If its figures are correct and its data is correct, one can only conclude that the technology companies (with the exception of Google) need to do more to become environmentally friendly. This is not to say that Google is exempt from trying to make improvements until it can reach a scorecard grade of straight As.

Though I am not naïve enough to think that these centers actually generate a tremendous amount of revenue for the local community, I do know that many communities grant huge incentives to entice technology companies to come to their local area. These enticements include offering huge tax credits and discounted building fees as well as other incentives. These incentives are used by local communities because they know that these data centers will in fact generate employment for workers in the area, thus contributing to the local economy.

So what do you think? Would you want a data center located in your community?

Comments welcome.

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by route79