Monday, March 29, 2010

How Green is Cloud Computing

One of technology’s latest catchphrases, “cloud computing” has been generating a lot of buzz lately. What does it mean to be “in the cloud”? And can operating “in the cloud” become a new sustainable business practice and a green alternative to other forms of computing?

What is it? The term “cloud computing” is used to describe a number of different services and technologies. At its broadest, the term “in the cloud” can refer to any resource available on the Internet. But when IT professionals refer to cloud computing, they often mean software, storage or processing power available virtually, outside of local servers: “software as a service,” “platform as a service,” or “infrastructure as a service.” Cloud computing, then, can refer to services like Google Apps, Google’s collection of applications like Google Docs and Gmail, where file-sharing and email is handled by Google’s servers rather than by a company’s local machines. It can also refer to the services offered by companies like Amazon, whereby computing infrastructure – virtual servers – can be created. It is the latter in particular that might point to a greener future for computing.

How green is it? Much has been written about the energy consumed by data center servers, and as more and more users “log on” and utilize these resources, the power used by the world’s computing infrastructure increases at a rapid rate. The buildings that house data centers are massive, housing thousands of servers that require electricity for both connectivity and for cooling. Although some data centers themselves have gone green, utilizing efficient forms of air-conditioning and upgrading to more efficient computers for example, “cloud computing” provides another alternative.

While companies, particularly those involved in e-commerce, rely on their servers being up and running 24-7 and being able to handle heavy traffic loads, most of the time, these computing resources (including redundancy plans that often involve additional backup servers) are under-utilized. Even with the most energy-efficient processors and cooling plans, this can be incredibly wasteful.

The rise of cloud computing allows for businesses utilize the computing resources they need and pay for what they use. In other words, it allows them to take advantage of “virtualization.” Rather than employing the hardware in data centers, where the servers are always on even when not being fully utilized, virtualization allows “machine instances” to be launched as necessary. There is no need for backup servers, staging servers, redundancy plans and the like; server instances are launched in the cloud as necessary. This is scalable almost instantly, allowing for amazing flexibility with a vastly smaller energy consumption footprint.

Offering a very different metaphor than the unfortunate description of the Internet as “a series of tubes,” cloud computing hopes to provide the next step in computing technology, services, and power. And as one of its features is “virtualization,” the move away from massive hardware and energy consumption might point to a greener, more sustainable business and computing future.

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