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How Much of the Cloud Is Dirty Smoke?

A Greenpeace report on the environmental impact of the biggest cloud service providers is prompting some campuses to rethink their clean-energy options.

Just as universities are coming to grips with the issues of security and reliability in the cloud, they now have something else to worry about: the environmental effects of the huge data centers that power it all. In a recent 52-page report, How Clean is Your Cloud?, Greenpeace details how the rapid growth of cloud computing is negatively impacting the environment, and proposes ways for the globe's 14 biggest cloud-computing hitters--household names such as Amazon, Microsoft and Apple--to get back on track with clean, renewable-energy options.

Released in April, the report calls attention to the clustering of huge data centers in certain parts of the world--such as the Pacific Northwest's Silicon Forest, Chicago, Virginia, Germany, and Hong Kong--that rely on electricity generated predominantly by coal or nuclear power plants. "A growing concentration of data center investments in key locations is having a significant impact on energy demand and how the electricity grid is managed," reads the report. "If such concentrated expansion is allowed to continue, this will make it increasingly difficult to shift these investments and the surrounding community away from dirty sources of electricity."

The public backlash over the report's finding has been swift. Thousands of Apple customers, for example, besieged the company with requests that it switch from coal to clean energy. In response, in late May, Apple committed to investing in local renewable energy to power its data center in North Carolina. Although higher education institutions are not specifically addressed in the report, David Pomerantz, Greenpeace's media officer, says that colleges and universities can--and do--apply pressure to cloud service providers. He cites the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Duke University (NC) and the University of North Carolina Wilmington, which all weighed in on Apple's energy use and helped bring about the change.

The findings of the Greenpeace report are now prompting many other colleges and universities to take stock of their own initiatives. For those campuses that know little about their cloud providers, there is pressure to find out more. For others, it's an opportunity to reaffirm that they are already taking the right steps.

Among the green leaders in higher education, Oregon State University and Pomona College (CA) have already instituted IT policies to help preserve the environment. Their efforts have landed them on The Princeton Review's 2012 list of 322 top green colleges. Their mindset echoes that of Yahoo, which, according to the report, has made the most significant effort to wean itself off dirty energy. 

"Leadership at the highest levels influences the entire OSU community to develop creative solutions for increasing sustainability and reducing the impact on the environment," notes Lucas Friedrichsen, IT manager for Technology Support Services at OSU. OSU has been purchasing almost 100 percent renewable energy since 2007.

For many years, OSU has utilized a private cloud-based data center for schools in the Oregon University System. It is now working to improve its efficiency through physical server consolidation and virtualization projects. The undertaking serves the dual purpose of encouraging energy savings and meeting rigid state and federal laws about data security, access, and retention. The private, in-house nature of the cloud solution ensures that the IT team knows absolutely everything about it. Indeed, OSU is proud of the fact that environmental issues were a consideration during development of its private cloud, long before the Greenpeace report was released. "As a leader in sustainability, OSU considers green computing purchases and decisions a priority," says Friedrichsen. "As we progress in the refinement of our private cloud, we have considered power usage and efficiency at each stage."

OSU is an exception. Prior to the release of the Greenpeace report, most colleges and businesses--even ones that pride themselves on their green cred--paid little attention to the source of the electricity powering their data centers, whether those data centers are in-house or outsourced to a cloud-based service provider. Kenneth Pflueger, executive director and CIO of Pomona College, admits to being startled by the names of some of the companies that rank as the worst offenders. "Having never really investigated, I was surprised at Google and Apple being on there," notes Pflueger. "They seem to be socially conscious in many other respects, so I assumed they'd do the same here."

The news that Microsoft and Amazon--which provide some student services and short-term research storage for Pomona--received poor Clean Energy Index grades from Greenpeace also came as a shock. In recent years, Pomona has made a tremendous effort to shrink its environmental footprint. For example, in its own data center, which handles long-term storage, a virtualization effort reduced the number of servers from 120 to eight newer models, which generate less heat and require little cooling. The upgrade earned the data center an Energy Star rating--a stamp of approval from the EPA and the US Department of Energy.

With the release of the Greenpeace report, however, Pflueger now wonders if too much emphasis has been placed on energy efficacy at the expense of other gains. "At some point, you can't make things more efficient," he notes. "We'll always need energy. Greater efficiency is only a small piece of the pie in moving towards green energy."

Pflueger believes that insights gleaned from the Greenpeace report will give Pomona a better sense of how to evaluate a cloud vendor, including those that it already uses. "I would say that the greenness of a cloud solution will definitely sway my decision moving forward," he notes. "And given the priority of sustainability for Pomona, this factor is likely to outweigh cost."

Such statements are music to the ears of Greenpeace's Pomerantz. While he has nothing but praise for the efficiency efforts of many colleges and universities, he believes that it's vital for IT leaders to look at the bigger picture. "Higher ed is in a position to serve as a leader on energy issues," he insists. "Energy efficiency is a really important piece of the puzzle. The problem comes when organizations hide behind their strides in efficiency and turn a blind eye to what type of energy is being using."

As schools digest the ramifications of the Greenpeace report, Pomerantz reminds campus leaders that institutions can take many actions--large and small--to support clean energy. "Look for a cloud provider that can provide clean energy, rather than coal," he advises. "Learn about where your data is being stored, find out what the company's policies are, and work with that company to provide the cleanest, most renewable energy option possible."

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