How dirty is your data? The importance of boosting green credentials

Energy use under the spotlight

The environmental credential of your business is an important differentiator when consumers choose which companies to buy from. Illustrating how your enterprise is protecting the environment is important. However, as more businesses embrace the cloud, the environmental aspects of cloud computing are now under close scrutiny.

Businesses are creating masses of data that they need to store and manipulate. According to IDC it's predicted that stored data would reach nearly 2 zettabytes (1 billion terabytes) by 2015. And increasingly, businesses are storing this information in the cloud.

The question then is how green is that storage? With Apple building one of the world's largest data centres on earth, which is reported to use enough power for 250,000 homes, businesses that need to protect their environmental credentials, yet see a strong business case for more cloud computing services, will have to reconcile these questions.

Greenpeace in its report states: "How much energy is required to power the ever-expanding online world? What percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions is attributable to the IT sector? Answers to these questions are very difficult to obtain with any degree of precision, partially due to explosive growth, a wide range of devices and energy sources, and rapidly changing technology and business models.

"In the US, which hosts approximately 40 per cent of the world's data centre servers, it is estimated that server farms consume close to three per cent of the national power supply."

Power guzzlers

For businesses that are being pushed to use more cloud-based services to remain competitive in their market sectors, the power consumption and CO2 emissions from data centres is clearly a concern.

Greenpeace's 2010 Make IT Green report estimates that the global demand for electricity from data centres was in the order of 330bn kWh in 2007, close to the equivalent of the entire electricity demand of the UK (345bn kWh). This demand is projected to triple or quadruple by 2020.

Data centres are though, using a number of renewable energy courses. Apple's new data centre will have one of the largest solar arrays ever constructed. In Wales, Next Generation Data is claiming that it uses 100 per cent renewable energy via its deal with Smartest Energy, which is itself the country's largest purchaser of electricity from independent generators of renewable energy.

Small business owners considering their current and future use of cloud-based services need to look past the cost of delivery and assess the energy foundations onto which the services they are using are based.

Cleaning up the consumption

The delivery of cloud services is certainly cleaner than it has ever been in the past. Three years ago IBM opened the first solar array to power a data centre in India. Small business owners can therefore, have a level of buying power when choosing which cloud services to partner with.

Scrutinising the power generation credentials of a data centre is still difficult simply because there is a lack of standards to compare data centres against. The limitations of industry-adopted metrics like PUE and DCiE only measure the efficiency of data centre infrastructure relative to energy demand. New metrics continue to be developed however, including the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

It can be a difficult piece of research to determine whether the data centre your business is using has positive green credentials, especially as the data centres in use could be in very different geographical locations.

In its report into the sustainable cloud, Accenture states: "The difference in location can have a significant impact. For example, data centres in the US Northwest (where hydroelectric generation is common) run on power with roughly half the carbon intensity of the electricity that powers data centres in the Midwest (where coal power is common).

"For a large data centre with 50,000 servers, the difference can be equivalent to the carbon emissions from thousands of cars."

Boost your green credentials

There is little doubt that the cloud will continue to dominate how small businesses in particular manage their data needs. And as the world has an insatiable appetite for data storage, this will ensure that these services do improve.

This will also mean that the green credentials of these data centres also improves, with Accenture concluding: "As Microsoft and other providers build more data centers based on leading-edge designs, and retrofit older data centers, average PUE will continue to improve and per-user footprint of cloud business applications will shrink further over time."

As a small business owner perhaps with on-site servers that have enabled your business to build a hybrid cloud system, assessing how your servers are used and how this could be improved is vital, and has a positive impact on your enterprises overall green credentials.

Choosing servers that allow throttling for instance, or moving to rack based servers that offer more flexibility and are energy efficient also adds to the positive environmental impact your business is having.