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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

Like many people this holiday season, the couple in the Microsoft ad below was stranded in an airport. With their plane delayed, the man has an idea. “To the cloud,” he says to his confused partner. He then uses his laptop to stream TV shows the couple had stored in Microsoft’s “cloud” of data centers.

The virtual cloud he referred to is made up of information stored in physical warehouses of high-powered servers. The commercial is intended to show that Windows 7 users can manage their pictures, videos, and documents from anywhere there is Internet access. Microsoft is spending hundreds of millions on similar spots to convince other consumers to follow the fictional couple’s lead into cloud computing.

“Yay cloud,” says the woman in the ad, engrossed in an episode of “Celebrity Probation.”

But is the growing cloud something everyone should cheer? Information and communication technology (ICT) companies already account for up to three percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — a figure projected to increase as more data centers are built to store the shift of information to the web. During interviews with MediaShift, executives at Microsoft and Facebook said cloud computing could have positive environmental impacts. But analysts and activists have expressed serious doubts about the implications of the coming data-center building boom.

Big Business, Big Emissions

One issue that all sides agree on is the tremendous growth potential for cloud computing. The cloud encompasses a wide variety of new media applications, ranging from established offerings such as email and e-commerce to rapidly expanding services like shared documents and social networking.

Already, the size of the worldwide cloud computing market is an estimated $37.8 billion according to MarketsandMarkets, a global research and consulting company. As broadband speeds, WiFi, and mobile Internet devices continue to improve, M&M predicts the value of the cloud will nearly quadruple to $121.1 billion by 2015.

Environmentalists fear that the carbon footprint of the data centers powering the cloud could grow at the same breakneck pace. Data centers consume vast quantities of energy to both operate and cool the cloud servers.

“The world’s 44 million servers consume 0.5 percent of all electricity, with data center emissions now approaching those of countries such as Argentina or the Netherlands,” the McKinsey Quarterly reported in 2009. “Without efforts to curb demand, current projections show worldwide carbon emissions from data centers will quadruple by 2020.”

Surprisingly, there could be positive environmental side effects to this rapid expansion of the cloud. Although the influential SMART 2020 report from the Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative had similar projections for the growing carbon footprint of data centers, it saw reason for cautious optimism: “ICT’s unique ability to monitor and maximize energy efficiency both within and outside of its own sector could cut [carbon dioxide] emissions by up to five times this amount” in the next decade, it said.

How would the ICT sector prevent these future emissions? One way is by sharing the advances in infrastructure and software design that the industry is using to reduce emissions from its data centers with building engineers and tech developers outside of the ICT sector. By way of perspective, the report notes that the potential CO2 savings from this information transfer could be “greater than the current annual emissions of either the U.S. or China” — the world’s second and first largest greenhouse gas polluters, respectively.

Positive Potential

Industry spokespeople interviewed for this story were understandably eager to play up the potentially positive effects of the data center boom. All the companies spoke of their innovations in efficient data center design as well as the additional environmental benefits provided by their particular business model.

Executives at Facebook pointed to the emissions prevented by their popular photo sharing platform. In July, the dominant social network announced that its 500 million users were uploading more than 100 million photos every day. That massive influx of pixels has led the company to construct two new data centers, one in Washington State and another in North Carolina. Facebook policy communications director Barry Schnitt told me that storing the images in these new data centers — coupled with a new virtual storage infrastructure referred to as Haystack — prevents hundreds of tons of CO2 emissions that would be required to mail printed photographs.

Microsoft, which is trying to take Windows from the desktop to the data center, has been promoting a study it commissioned on the increased efficiency of cloud computing. The resulting research, from consulting firm Accenture, found that if companies switch from on-site servers to Microsoft’s data centers, they can reduce data storage emissions by between 30 and 90 percent.

Industry analysts are not very impressed by these claims.

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Simon Mingay

“There is a lot more proof that needs to be put in place to show that the cloud can be green,” said Simon Mingay, Gartner’s vice president of research.

In collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, his firm recently released a study examining the carbon footprint of the ICT industry. “Whilst we all recognize the potential of it, I haven’t seen anything yet that convinces me that that’s a reality today,” Mingay said.

Speaking from his London office, Mingay criticized Microsoft’s Accenture study, in particular.

“There’s a distinct lack of real data there,” Mingay said. It would have been more useful had the study revealed the used raw kilowatt hours of energy saved instead of making assumptions about emissions factors, which can be used for “fudging issues,” he said. “I mean, it was interesting but it was in no way conclusive.”

The same paucity of information gives reason to doubt the CO2 reduction claims Facebook makes in association with its digital photo platform. While the company’s communications director said its Haystack storage system had produced big efficiency gains, he was unable to provide specific research to support the benefits of its massive photo library.

“How online activities replace carbon-intensive offline activities,” Schnitt wrote in email, “is something we’re interested in exploring.”

Microsoft defended its study, saying it couldn’t release more details for competitive reasons.

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Josh Henretig

“A lot of the data that is associated with our data centers is proprietary and confidential,” said Josh Henretig, a senior environmental field manager at Microsoft. “And for a peer organization that is also operating in this space, you could pretty easily back into some of the margins that we have, the services that we provide, and things that we just consider competitive in nature. It may be frustrating that we didn’t reveal more within the study but we were really excited about the direction that the report exposed around the efficiency gains that can be achieved through that shared infrastructure model.”

Green Questions

Environmentalists are concerned about the industry’s apparent confusion with the difference between efficiency and sustainability. Companies “need to recognize that energy efficient is not ‘green’ on its own, and is no longer enough. NGOs, and increasingly customers will demand more,” Mingay wrote in a post on Gartner’s blog.

Greenpeace blogger Jodie Van Horn explained why her NGO is so concerned about this confusion: “A highly efficient data center powered by coal destroys the planet, it just does so more slowly than one lacking in state-of-the-art efficiencies.”

Jonathan Heiliger, the vice president of technical operations at Facebook and a Silicon Valley veteran, told me that tech companies traditionally treated “data centers like ‘Fight Club’ — the thing everyone does but doesn’t talk about.”

Environmental groups feel that, given the threat of catastrophic climate change, tech firms can no longer continue with business as usual and risk forgoing the type of innovation the SMART 2020 report said is necessary to reduce global warming.

The loudest voice calling to change the ICT industry has been Greenpeace. The environmental advocacy group launched the Cool IT campaign in 2009 and published its fourth biennial leaderboard at the Cancun climate conference in December. In addition to publicizing and ranking the environmental efforts of IT firms, Greenpeace stepped up its pressure on the industry early last year by focusing on the data centers of a particularly public target: Facebook. The social network attracted Greenpeace’s ire after it chose to locate two new, high-efficiency data centers in states that are heavily reliant on coal for power.

The decision to make Facebook the face of its IT campaign struck some industry analysts as an odd choice.

“There are certainly much ‘dirtier’ data centers out there and in the pipeline that Greenpeace could have attacked,” according to a note by Tier 1 Research in September.

While that is certainly true, Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook explained that, because the company is young, high profile, and expanding rapidly, there’s more scope for activists to exert influence. This strategy was most cleverly elaborated in a video Greenpeace made that was loosely related to the hit film “The Social Network”:

In turn, Greenpeace wants Facebook to have its “friends” in Washington push for clean energy.

“Ultimately, they can’t change the grids themselves and that’s why we need to get them involved in the policy debate and demand cleaner sources of energy,” Cook said. “If we’re stuck with the same sources of energy 10 years from now, they’re going to be a much, much bigger problem — and they’re already a significant problem. [ICT firms] like to talk about efficiency — and that’s great — but when you’re growing that much you have to look at the fuel source for the electricity.”

Google — whose popular Google Docs are in part responsible for Microsoft’s focus on getting its Office Suite into the cloud — is one tech firm that gets high marks for its clean energy advocacy and investment. In the last election cycle, the search giant came out strongly against Proposition 23, which would have suspended implementation of California’s global warming law (commonly referred to as AB32) until unemployment in the state fell below 5.5 percent. The failed ballot initiative could have cost California $10 billion in private investments in clean energy businesses and 500,000 jobs, according to an analysis from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Google also backed up its clean energy talk with a $5 billion investment in Atlantic Wind Connection. If it’s approved by regulators, this massive project will create an underwater transmission network capable of adding to the grid 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy. According to its developers, that’s “enough power to eventually serve approximately 1.9 million households” — or a lot of clean energy-powered data centers.

Sustainable Policy

So what exactly would green groups like to see from ICT firms that could alleviate their concerns about the cloud?

In the case of Facebook, Schnitt, the communications director, said he had met behind the scenes with Greenpeace before the holidays.

“We had a good conversation and they expressed their desire for us to reduce load and/or increase renewable capacity in the areas where we have increased load,” Schnitt said in an email. “I asked them for specific proposals, which they sent earlier this week. We’re reviewing those and hope to have them here in the coming weeks to discuss them and other issues.”

More generally, environmentalists want to encourage ICT companies’ continued shift towards greater transparency — an area where even Google is in need of improvement, according to Greenpeace — as well as more technical and political cooperation on clean energy issues. Collaborating on data center design is only a start. Green groups are asking for more sharing of both energy usage data and efficient data storage software as well as help in climate change policy advocacy.

That’s not too much to ask, says Mingay. “That is a perfectly legitimate role for any commercial organization to play. And at the end of the day, the ICT sector will be a winner in a low carbon, more sustainable economy.”

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.


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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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