Do you have the energy?

West Wind turbine, Wellington

Energy is always going to be a problem when it comes to a discussion about sustainable information technology. I recently read an article on Dan Luu’s blog about the siting of power stations. The story was about the disparity between the cost of computing hardware (servers) and the cost of powering and cooling said hardware. But it also highlights how the changing economy (from industrial to knowledge) has an impact on energy generation. It’s a well-written article, worth a read if you have any interest in the topic.

The fact that data centres are power intensive shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone outside the industry. The largest cloud-oriented companies have clearly recognised that supply (and the cost of power) is likely to become a problem in the future, as shown by their public commitment to renewable sources.

It also shows that an energy-saving justification for moving to cloud-based infrastructure is not as transparent as it seems at first sight.

We should be concerned at power consumption on user devices, whether directly connected to the mains or not. We should also be concerned about servers, both the powering and cooling. But as more of us move our essential IT infrastructure to the cloud, we should also be concerned about the energy consumption of those services. Cloud-based services should be more energy efficient, as they are built on scaled architecture, and should be reaping the economic benefits of that scale. However, this is all effectively hidden from the users of the service - not deliberately, for sure - but energy consumption is not disclosed (probably not even thought of by the service providers). Is this something we should be concerned with? Or must we trust the energy economies of scale that we believe are in place? I think that there should be a way to determine the net energy gain (or loss) when changing platform (cloud-based or otherwise).

We really want to know the impact of this change on an entity’s carbon footprint, but energy consumption is a good proxy for that in the meantime. Of course, in a world with a globally managed carbon market, a service price would reflect its embedded carbon, but we don't live in that world - yet.

What do you think?