Is Apple’s iCloud the internet’s dirtiest service? Greenpeace thinks so, but its analysis is coming under fire. Guy Daniels reports.
According to an emotive report released this week from environmental campaigners Greenpeace, internet data centres from the likes of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are among “the dirtiest things on the internet.” Its message is simple: “Let's get the internet off coal”. Putting visions of Steampunk inspired computers to one side, Greenpeace is referring to how data centres are powered. Here’s the organisation’s opening gambit:
“Giant data centres … are now one of the fastest growing sources of new electricity demand in the world. Every day, tons of asthma-inducing, climate destroying coal pollution is thrown in the air to keep the Internet humming.”
Greenpeace released its ‘Make IT Green’ report in 2010, highlighting the scale of the sector’s estimated energy consumption. Amongst its findings was the following:
“The combined electricity demand of the internet/cloud (data centres and telecommunications network) globally in 2007 was approximately 623bn kWh. If the cloud were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world. Based on current projections, the demand for electricity will more than triple to 1,973bn kWh, an amount greater than the combined total demands of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil.”
It identifies Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple as the three biggest culprits (whilst praising Yahoo, Google and Facebook for switching away from coal-powered power generation), and has started an email campaign to encourage their respective management teams to make the switch to renewable sources – or, as they put it, “to clean up the cloud”.
Taking Apple and its iCloud service as an example of a prime eco-offender, Greenpeace spokesman Dave Pomerantz claims that coal-based energy makes up over half of Apple’s data centre power:
“Apple right now is falling behind companies like Google and Facebook, who are taking a leadership role on this issue. It’s a shame that a company that built its reputation on thinking differently is now behind the curve.”
He adds that Apple’s North Carolina data centre in Maiden (and host of its iCloud service) requires 100 megawatts of power when running at full capacity, of which renewable energy powers just 10 per cent and coal 55.1 per cent
Not so, says Apple. It has rebutted the claims, stating that its Maiden data centre requires just 20 megawatts when it’s running at max, and that over half of that energy requirement will come from renewable sources once the adjacent 171-acre solar array is complete and becomes operational.
Apple isn’t the only one raising an eyebrow at the assumptions and calculations.
The AllThingsD site says that Microsoft’s Washington data centre
, which is exactly the same size as Apple’s, only requires 27 megawatts (far less than the asserted 100 megawatts and giving more credence to Apple’s claim of 20 megawatts), and that publicly available records show that 46 percent of the power Duke Energy supplies it with is coal-fired.
It also appears that Greenpeace may be drawing its source data from a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency report that, in turn, uses data collected in 2007. Whoops.
Apple released a statement saying they are on track to supply more than 60 percent of required power on-site from renewable sources, and that its solar farm and fuel cell installation will each be the largest of their kind in the US:
“We believe this industry-leading project will make Maiden the greenest data center ever built, and it will be joined next year by our new facility in Oregon running on 100 per cent renewable energy.”
Greenpeace report author Gary Cook the released the following counter-statement to Apple’s rebuttal, defending its calculations:
“We made estimates of power demand using fairly conservative industry benchmarks for data centre investments. A $1 billion investment should net Apple 66 megawatts of computer power demand. Assuming a fairly standard energy efficiency factor for new data centres for non-computer energy demand of 50 per cent gives you a 100 megawatt data center.”
Analysis of Greenpeace’s report by Rich Miller on the Data Center Knowledge website suggests that the environmental organisation has got its sums badly wrong. For example, Greenpeace is basing its assumption on the fact that Apple’s publically-stated $1 billion investment in its Maiden facility covers just the data centre and not the solar array and fuel cell installation next door.
Miller says this case illustrates the difficulty of estimating data centre power usage, given that most companies prefer not to disclose the full facts. He adds that some approaches to data centre power estimation use the square footage of the facility as a starting point, although workloads can vary widely in the density of their computer infrastructure, and the space taken up by non-computer equipment also varies. He says that while Apple’s Maiden data centre occupies 500,000 square feet, only 184,000 square feet of that is dedicated to data halls for servers.
Until there is more openness through the industry – either through a voluntary code of conduct or government-mandated – it is going to be impossible for third-party observers to calculate and rank the power usage (clean or otherwise) of data centres. As things stand, Greenpeace is entitled to present its report based on its best estimates, and data centre owners are free to present their own claims and rebuttals. Those companies with nothing to hide should lead the initiative to produce clear, open and audited accounts of their energy usage.
Most would find it difficult to disagree with Gary Cook on this assessment of the current situation:
“There have been increasing attempts by some companies to portray the cloud as inherently ‘green’, despite a continued lack of transparency and very poor metrics for measuring performance or actual environmental impact.”
Despite the disagreements about Apple, the report is well worth a look. The 52-page PDF can be downloaded here.
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