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  • Writer's pictureDoug Hull

Every cloud has a silver lining

Have you noticed how a lot of people look or point upward when they talk about 'the cloud'? As if the sum total of all our data and apps and tik-toks reside in some mythical place in the heavens that is accessible only by wizards and nefarious Russian hackers intent on stealing our identities. Of course the cloud is not 'up there', but down here on terra firma, however it remains a genuinely scary and unfamiliar concept for most people. In reality, the cloud is a relatively safe and accessible place that offers all sorts of benefits - from lower costs through to greater flexibility. However there is one major benefit to cloud computing that is often overlooked, and that is the reduction in carbon emissions - in fact a recent report by S&P Global claims that cloud data centres are nearly five times more efficient than their competition. Analysis by Accenture puts this figure at 84%, and potentially even higher if applications are optimised for the cloud. But what is the cloud really, and why is it energy efficient?



In a nutshell, the cloud refers to pay-as-you-go services that are accessed over the internet and can be consumed by anybody - from individuals to large multi-nationals. In reality these services run on high-end computer servers that reside in large data centres scattered all over the world. The biggest players in the industry are Amazon, Microsoft and Google (surprise!) and they provide easy to use products and services which run out of these data centres. I shall refer to these three as MicroGooZon going forward because it saves typing and makes me feel clever!


Getting back to the point of this blog, these data centres service large numbers of customers, which means they can be built on a massive scale - much bigger than what a single company would ever build for itself to use. The size factor means the cloud operators can leverage 'economies of scale' to bring down the cost per unit of computing resources, and they allow sharing of these resources between and across customers. In the older pre-cloud world, each customer would need their own networks, firewalls and servers, in their own computer rooms, but in the cloud these expensive items can be shared thus bringing the cost down.


The economy-of-scale principle is also true regarding the power consumed by the cloud data centres i.e. the cost per unit is much lower because of the scale. Typically one of the biggest consumers of electricity in the data centre is the cooling systems. Computer hardware tends to generate a lot of heat and devices are carefully engineered to ensure adequate airflow over circuit boards and other components. In a busy data centre that services millions of crazy cat video uploads to youtube on a daily basis that soon adds up to an enormous amount of heat. When you scale those data centres out to MicroGooZon levels, there are opportunities to customise the design of the building and manage cooling in a hyper-efficient way. For example, using outside air for cooling (where data centres are located in cooler regions), building custom servers, using water cooling systems to recycle surplus heat, or using evaporative cooling systems which are more efficient than more traditional air-conditioners.



Another benefit of scale is that it makes sense in many cases for the cloud companies to commission renewable energy providers to bring new energy-generating sites online specifically to serve their needs. This accelerates the uptake of renewables in areas where it may otherwise be a lot slower, and allows these technologies to gain a strong foothold in the market.


Of course every cloud has a chance of meatballs. There are of course downsides - in my experience as an employee of a large commercial cloud customer I can vouch for the fact that it is quite difficult to get past all the marketing hype and obtain accurate data from the cloud providers on carbon emissions, and those that are available are sanitised and green-washed. I appreciate that this is a problem facing all companies these days, but it would be refreshing to get real, transparent data in this regard. Another downside is that, while the ease-of-use and flexibility of the cloud is incredibly valuable, it does also mean that it is easy to let things get out of hand, and your cloud footprint can sprawl. To reap the benefits of the cloud you need to manage your environment tightly and carefully.


Perhaps the biggest advantage of the cloud in my mind is the relation between cost and carbon. The better you manage your cloud resources, the fewer resources you utilise, the less carbon you generate, and the lower your monthly bill. In a world dominated by capitalistic pressures to use and produce more and more, the fact that the cloud computing model of MicroGooZon equates cost to carbon emissions means that economic pressure is actually applied in a positive way for the environment. Seems like a win-win to me!


Until next time!


Doug

aka The Regeneralist



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