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Acid or Green Rain from Cloud Computing?

Can cloud computing really deliver the environmental benefits that the hype suggests?

The world's data centers collectively are said to be producing more carbon emissions than consumers within many countries (Italy, The Netherlands and Argentina are some of the more headline-grabbing examples that have been cited of late). "The whole industry must be more efficient" is an all too common battle cry, in reaction to that. But does that really wash - or is it just more greenwash?

As the need for computing technology grows, we are seeing more and more organizations considering building in house data centres, which will lead to a huge overall increase in carbon emissions. It's madness, really, when the data they are storing and processing could be residing on someone else's servers, under an outsourcing agreement. This is all about economies of scale. After all, a business that has only a single rack, or very few racks, in its data centre still has to power and cool the whole data centre. So it makes no sense at all.

As for the scare stories about massive upsurges in the amount of carbon being belched out by data centers, well, no sooner have these stories hit the mat than they are followed by articles saying: ‘Don't worry, the future is bright; Cloud Computing is riding in to save the day'. But is it? And how can it? A participant at a recent technology seminar that I attended, stood up and boldly stated that Cloud computing signaled the end of data center industry and the need for data centers, as "we would all now simply plug into the Cloud". When asked to elaborate, he gave the impression that he genuinely believed that the ‘cloud' was simply ‘out there', as if it was some form of vaporous computing magic and that it would result in the abolition of data centers - all data centers.

I use this as a real example of the confusion and hype that appears to have set in around all things ‘cloud'. While the delegate's point about ‘plugging into the Cloud' has factual basis, the assumption that data centres will no longer exist is quite obviously a work of fiction. Of course, they will exist - the Cloud has to be hosted somewhere. And the plain truth is that all of us have been accessing the ‘Cloud' in some shape or form for many years.

The simple truth is that the ‘Cloud' is a natural and, some would say, marketing-led progression of computing technologies. Just as the mobile phone is no longer the size of a house brick, so servers and computers have become faster, more efficient, powerful and we can do more with less. What we are now seeing is the industry attempting to ‘package' these improvements and create buzz to entice business to reconsider their computing options. And clearly the ‘green' angle is seen as both relevant and compelling.

If we compare Cloud computing with one of the last great ‘must-haves' - Broadband - it was only a combination of affordable pricing, coupled with compelling applications - streaming video and social networking - that led to the explosion in adoption during the past six years to the levels that were once predicted by the Telcos/ISPs back in 2002/3.

One of the key reasons for its lack of early success was that the industry failed to explain the benefits of broadband clearly. It was hung up on ‘contention ratios, ‘Nat' and ‘Non-Nat' configurations and ‘upload speeds', and other technical features that were only understood by an elite few. And I can see the same mistakes being made with the Cloud.

One very simple definition of the Cloud is that of a resilient, high availability ‘infrastructure as a service' solution for organizations, offering selected outsourcing at lower cost than in-house - or economies and efficiencies of scale, at a reduced cost. For many of today's businesses, the benefits of Cloud Computing, of a centralized computing infrastructure that can be easily accessed via the Internet, are just too compelling to ignore. Server virtualization, storage, ‘play and pay as you go' web hosting, integrated communications are a sample of the current services that are delivered as cloud offerings and all of them, if utilised properly, should deliver substantial operation and financial savings. And this is the benefit that we need to explain and market.

Until now, the expected primary source for Cloud-based revenues was large companies. And yet the current economic climate creates an opportunity for the SME to derive as much benefit as the blue chip. But how are they to be reached?

A relatively recent survey of 644 mid-ranged US companies highlighted that 25% of respondents defined Cloud Computing purely as a buzz word, 36% were unsure of the benefits, 12% had no intention of using Cloud services and 39% only predicted a maximum of 10% of their IT services being delivered via the cloud. This is not unexpected, but shows the challenge the industry faces in promoting its message.

We need to get the balance right between demonstrating real bottom-line cost savings to the business, while reducing carbon emissions through good practice. Cloud computing should not simply be positioned around looking to cut emissions; it needs to be advocating better utilisation and efficiencies for IT and thus the business. The core benefit is not about lower power consumption, but about a better automated business process that's able to run more effectively. Being green will be a natural by-product of that.

Server virtualization is already proving itself as the ‘low hanging fruit' in reducing overhead. Industry figures indicate that, for every server workload virtualized, hardware and operating costs are reduced by as much as 50% and energy costs by 80%, saving more than £2,500 per year. When you add this to the fact that IT services can be delivered on demand, and that server utilization can be improved by a ratio of 10:1 or better, the benefits are hugely attractive. In the past, businesses would have put up with this excess capacity, given the IT department's risk-aversion, but not so today, it seems.

A McKinsey & Co study found that within one media company, almost one-third of the servers in operation had utilisation rates of below 3% and nearly two-thirds of the servers had utilisation rates of below 10%. So it's not surprising that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has predicted that, if the current trends continued, energy consumption by data centers will almost double to more than 100 billion kWh per year by 2011. The McKinsey study concluded that the ‘"the greenest data centre is the one that you don't have to build" and this is where cloud computing offers its biggest advantages - economies of scale. A data center needs to power and cool, thereby consuming energy, whether it contains one rack or six hundred.

As with the anything that ‘appears too good to be true' there is a catch. And the catch, quite simply, with cloud hosting is that you lose direct control. When you are dependent on someone else for the management and care of your technology, you are effectively placing your business in the hands of a third party. The recent spate of well publicised data centre outages has really highlighted this fact and has led to pain for many businesses. But can outages be avoided? The simple and very truthful answer is ‘no'.

While cloud service and data centre providers can take every practical measure possible to prevent downtime, there is always a chance, no matter how slim, that an event might occur that is totally outside of their control. If cloud computing is to succeed and deliver the benefits that it so obviously promises, then the market must accept the fact that trust and understanding, as much as fiscal and ‘green' benefits, will be the real keys that unlock it's obvious potential. Cloud service providers must be totally honest about the underlying infrastructure that they operate - eg, the data centers, the power and network supplies, the fail-over options and perhaps, more importantly, outline what happens, should things go wrong.  Likewise, customers must understand about redundancy and, crucially, the costs associated with the provision of a fully redundant solution.

Why would you not consider a cloud model? To build and manage a secure, fully powered, high-availability environment, capable of withstanding disasters or interruptions, is a costly and resource-intensive undertaking. As new vulnerabilities and growing threats proliferate on a daily basis, application monitoring and patch management becomes a full time job. Wouldn't you rather utilise your highly skilled technical resource on projects that impact directly on your core business? Do you really want to hold stocks of server parts? Wouldn't your accounts department feel more comfortable with an agreed and predictable monthly cost for the IT services that you require? And wouldn't your shareholders and customers feel better about you knowing that you are actively seeking to reduce your carbon footprint by maximising the use of power reducing technologies in which you have not had to invest capital?

Clearly, the benefits of cloud computing can go well beyond any savings that can be made on the power bill from the data centre. Indeed, the more effective IT is in support of the core business processes and objectives, the more cloud computing provides a systemic value.

Thus, the danger of claiming that the ‘Cloud is green' is that you won't see the true holistic benefit of cloud computing as a means of reinventing your IT architecture into a much more flexible and efficient tool for your business. That effort requires some detailed rethinking and those that jump onto the cloud computing bandwagon, focusing on narrow benefits, such as simple power consumption savings, are missing the real opportunities that the ‘Cloud' has to offer.

More Stories By Phil Worms

Phil is a 30 year IT industry veteran with a passion for education and has personally led many school and higher education initiatives designed to engage young people and showcase the broad range of exciting and fulfilling roles in IT.

A full and varied career has seen Phil move through various senior product/project and marketing positions with companies as diverse as Centrica plc, One.Tel, VarTec Telecom and iomart Group plc. Phil is working on a project to create an intergenerational social hub that will celebrate creativity and achievement in Helensburgh, birthplace of television pioneer John Logie Baird.The Heroes Centre will provide people of all ages with the new media and content creation skills required to engage fully in the digital world. Follow his progress on Twitter and on Facebook

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eswaran 02/13/12 12:16:00 AM EST

Cloud Computing is like the dog storing the bone for a future date and forgetting where it is stored. So often we store something in the cloud and forget about it; our comments for example. While providers need to be open, users too should be circumspect enough to know technology behind the cloud.

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