Home Business IT Business Telecommunications Massive energy cost hidden in the cloud

Massive energy cost hidden in the cloud

Ground-breaking Australian research shows public debate has missed the point on making cloud services more energy efficient.

Insatiable demand for online and mobile applications has created a sustainability time bomb for cloud services, according to new Australian research. For the first time, researchers have calculated the energy consumption of the multiple components needed to support cloud services accessed via wireless networks.

The report – The Power of Wireless Cloud – warns that industry has vastly underestimated energy consumption across the cloud ecosystem as more people access services using portable devices. The popularity of services like Google Apps, Office 365, Amazon Web, Facebook, Zoho cloud office suite, and many others delivered largely over wireless networks, is driving a massive surge in energy consumption.

The energy use of cloud services accessed via wireless networks is expected to grow nearly fivefold between 2012 and 2015, the equivalent of 4.9 million new cars on the roads. The analysis shows that wireless access networks (Wi-Fi and 4G LTE) will be responsible for 90% of that energy consumption increase. Data centres, the focus of much recent high-profile research into IT energy consumption by Greenpeace and others, will account for only 9%.

The new research, by Melbourne’s Centre for Energy Efficient Telecommunications (CEET), shows that urgent action is required to curb spiralling energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Principal Research Fellow Dr Kerry Hinton, CEET Deputy Director, said: “When Greenpeace analysed cloud efficiency it hit a nerve with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple by suggesting that data centres are to blame for a ‘dirty cloud’. In fact, the problem is much worse, data centres aren’t the biggest issue. The trend towards wireless is the real problem, and the networks are to blame. By 2015, the energy consumption of data centres will be a drop in the ocean compared to wireless networks in delivering cloud services.

“The problem is that we’re all accessing cloud services – things like webmail, social networking and virtual applications – over wireless networks. It’s the modern way but wireless is an energy monster. It’s just inherently inefficient. By 2015 wireless networks will use about 90% of the energy needed to power the entire wireless cloud services ecosystem. By comparison, data centres will account for only 9% or less. Industry needs to focus on the real issues with wireless network technologies if it wants to solve this problem.”

CEET is investigating ways to improve the way networks are managed for energy efficiency. The global telecommunications system is estimated to consume 2% of the world’s energy, and that figure could grow to 10% by 2020 if no action is taken.

Research commissioned by the Australian Computer Society in 2010 found that IT is responsible for 2.7% of Australia’s energy consumption, and 7.1% of Australia’s electricity consumption. (Disclaimer: that research was conducted by the author of this article).

”We often think of bandwidth as the barrier to the way online services evolve and improve. But the real bottleneck, looming sooner than we think, may be energy. The findings of this paper are an important starting point to improving the energy efficiency of cloud services. They provide a benchmark, highlighting where attention is needed and to measure progress to improvement.”

“It is unlikely people will give up the mobile convenience of these services. Another solution might be to increase the way network resources are shared among users, but more likely we’ll need a radical improvement in the efficiency of the technologies themselves and potentially a fundamental change to the way data is managed across the global network. These are the things we’re investigating at CEET.”

CEET is a partnership between Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs, the University of Melbourne, and the Victorian State Government. CEET is the world’s first research centre exclusively dedicated to driving the creation of energy-efficient telecommunications on a global scale.



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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire and editor of sister publication CommsWire. He is also founder and Research Director of Connection Research, a market research and analysis firm specialising in the convergence of sustainable, digital and environmental technologies. He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.