Sustainability Up in the Clouds

by Vivek Pai, MBA'11 (7/14/11)

Vivek Pai, MBA'11

Energy innovations surrounding green data centers which support cloud computing will have a significant impact in the impending future in creating a more sustainable environment.

With the advent of cloud computing[1], near-term energy innovations surrounding green data centers will have significant impact in creating a more sustainable environment.


Data centers, the infrastructure behind cloud computing, are a significant consumer of the world’s power. In its 2007 Report to Congress, the EPA estimated that the nation’s data centers consumed 1.5% of the entire electricity consumption five years ago - in 2006. The alarming statistic is that the average data center is only 30% efficient with 70% of the energy lost due to inefficiencies of power and heat dissipation, along with need to power cooling equipment. This means that only 30% of the energy used in data centers goes towards servers and actual data storage. These are frequently overlooked statistics. While the 1.5% might seem small when compared to commercial or transport energy utilizations, with the advent of cloud computing, this percentage is significantly higher today, than five years ago. 

Cloud computing offers the potential to massively reduce the environmental impact of information and communication technology (ICT), due to its flexible, scalable model, making it collectively far more resource efficient and easily adopted. As an environmental concept, shifting to cloud computing is equivalent to people moving from driving private cars to public transport.

As cloud computing gains momentum, there is an effort to build more efficient data centers. Modern data centers try to lessen their cooling expense by using outside air to keep data centers cool. These data centers do not use air conditioners, creating enormous energy savings.

Facebook’s recent announcement of its decision to publish its green data center specifications as open source, sharing its data center design with the world, confirms my belief that data centers will help promote more sustainable practices. This can be described simply as a good business move by Facebook but it also confirms that its data centers are a commodity and non-core to its business thus negating a core competency of its primary competitor Google, which is famous keeping its data center infrastructure advantages a closely guarded technological secret.

Facebook’s Oregon data center enables a reduction in energy consumption per unit of computing power by 38%; the data center has a PUE of 1.07, well below the EPA-defined state-of-the-art industry average of 1.5. This means 93% of the energy from the grid makes it into every server. By making its data center specifications open source demonstrates that IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) utility computing is now a commodity and non-differentiating to companies who want cheap computing resources.

Investment in new data centers involve millions of dollars and are depreciated over a five to fifteen-year period. Many organizations do not view such an investment as strategic and, instead, use a cloud provider. If a company decides to build a data center itself, the investment is strategic and energy savings will be the single-biggest consideration.  Regardless, new data center designs must include chilled fluid cooling systems, zoning for different energy needs, and server-based energy management software tools. I expect that the development of “green” cloud data centers will accelerate during the next five years, piggybacking on Facebook’s shared technologies.

Therefore the financial advantages of green data centers for cloud computing will inevitably promote energy efficiency and more sustainable energy practices.


[1] Cloud computing provides secure computation, software, and storage services over the internet, while the business software and data are stored on servers at remote locations. Cloud computing infrastructures consist of services delivered through data centers which house computers and storage systems. It includes backup power supplies, data communications connections, air conditioning, fire suppression and security devices. A data center can occupy one room of a building, one or more floors, or for cloud services, generally an entire building.