Sustainable Information Technology

Green IT: not one of ‘the key challenges facing the cloud industry’?

Whoops! Green IT cloud

Damn! Forgot to mention Green IT

Through my membership of the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Network I was invited to a Huawei sponsored seminar on ‘key challenges facing the cloud industry’ last week. Given the ‘Sustainable Business’ clue in the name of the network,  and the popular idea that cloud computing services can in one way or another help to reduce the overall carbon footprint of IT – I was expecting Green IT to be a big theme of the evening.

It was a racing certainty that we would hear about issues such as the transfer of corporate carbon emissions to service providers, the use of cloud technologies and applications to enable non-IT emission reductions, and so forth. This is why William Hill loves me.

On arrival at the Guardian’s head offices I saw that the title of the seminar wasn’t the same as that advertised in the emails I’d been sent. Perhaps that was the reason why Green IT wasn’t on the agenda?

Not a bit of it.

Green IT not part of the information economy?

The new name for the seminar was ‘The role of cloud services in the information economy’. Yes, that same economy in which – in Britain at least – the role of carbon emission reduction through technological innovation is central, and regarding which there are statutory obligations for large corporations.

So to my amazement, Green IT – sustainable information technology, call it what you will – is not one of the challenges faced by the cloud industry or one that affects its role in the information economy. Or so it seems.

Maybe you’re thinking the lack of engagement with Green IT issues was something to do with the calibre of the people who took part in the seminar? When I go along to one of these things, I’m expecting socially inept men mumbling through their beards as they gaze myopically through thick-rimmed glasses at their be-sandaled socks, failing to cope with the proximity of other human beings when ripped away from their super-computers for the evening. You know – people like me.

Well, that wasn’t it either. They were all men, but every one of them seemed to have a brain the size of a planet, communicated professionally and was actually – hold the front page! – interesting. Still no Green IT though.

The meeting was chaired with good humour and efficiency by Stephen Pritchard, an IT journalist. His knowledge and experience was apparent throughout.

Jerry Caron of Current Analysis gave the only ‘stand and deliver PowerPoint’ presentation of the evening, which was forgivable given the analytical nature of the business Jerry is in.

Take-aways:

  • Cloud is overhyped and adoption is currently low, but growing significantly
  • Opportunities for competitive differentiation in cloud service offerings
  • Cloud take-up highest in 1001-2000 employee firms
  • Companies are looking for cost savings (expect disappointment!), flexibility, access to the latest apps, and the ability to be ‘more strategic’ with IT
  • Businesses don’t see Telecom operators as the natural suppliers of cloud services

Green IT Content Rating: 0/10

By the way, I think I’ve tracked down where you can get the Current Analysis report that the stats were based on.

John Roese of Huawei came across as that rare combination, a visionary with his head screwed on.

Take-aways: Roese’s talk was wide-ranging and difficult to summarise, but no less engaging for that. My main take-away was that we need to be more aspirational when thinking about cloud services and how they can be used to transform business models and the way things generally get done. If ‘the cloud’ is just a collection of virtualised Data Centres, storage and computing, then it’s a pretty underwhelming proposition, according to Roese, and I agree with him.

Green IT Content Rating: 0/10.

I know that Wuawei actually think about this stuff. For example, this quote is from their CSR Report 2011:

The ICT sector is an energy-intensive industry with further user growth and traffic growth leading to greater energy consumption. Huawei realizes the importance of providing energy-efficient solutions. To address this issue, Huawei has implemented the “Green Communications, Green Huawei, Green World” strategy in its operations, products, and services.

As CTO of Simply Business, Lukas Oberhuber’s view was from the trenches. His talk had a focus on the practicalities of using cloud services to help run a business.

Take-aways:

  • New businesses will be natural adopters of cloud services
  • Why would anyone employ a person to admin an Exchange server, when they could push those services to the cloud and free up the member of staff to do something creative?
  • Cloud services enable agility and flexibility right now
  • Pareto principle: organisations used to look for applications that were 80% fit-for-purpose and needed only 20% customisation. Now the ratio is 95/5 at best. If it needs more customisation than that – forget it: you may as well use Ruby on Rails or something similar to develop your own app

Green IT Content Rating: 0/10.

Moving on, Derek White is the chief customer experience officer at Barclays. He enthused about the development of the Pingit service and the ‘reigniting of three hundred years of Barclays innovation’.

Take-aways:

  • Barclay’s thinking on the cloud is about customers and what they can access (or potentially access)
  • Cloud take-up being driven by the ‘consumerisation of technology’
  • Barriers to entry for innovative businesses dramatically lowered by the cloud
  • Apps development cycle times ‘collapsed’ by cloud collaboration

Green IT Content Rating: 0/10.

Dr. Stephen Unger of Ofcom was the final speaker. Throughout the evening there was a running joke about expected audience hostility towards Dr Unger as the representative of competitive regulation. Hmmm… wasn’t it a lack of regulation that got us all into the general macro-economic meltdown that our children will be paying for for the next gazillion years? You could say the same about industrial pollution and its role in global warming.

But I digress. Dr Unger saw his role as one of curbing our enthusiasm by dealing with the facts, which by this time was quite a refreshing approach.

Take-aways:

  • There is a real-world technical limitation on the growth of cloud services in the UK, which is constrained by frequency spectrum availability (which I simplify as ‘bandwidth’)
  • There needs to be more available spectrum
  • The spectrum available has to be used more efficiently
  • There need to be more cell sites (small cells – e.g. for wi-fi)

Green IT Content Rating: 0/10.

Other Cloud Constraints

In the ensuing general discussion, there were some other interesting points, viz;

  • Cloud interfaces should be standardised. Possibly around Amazon Web Services. Until this happens, there will be no mass enterprise adoption of cloud services
  • The human element is slowing things down. IT managers are worried about their futures
  • Consumer confidence in the cloud requires breakthrough products
  • The companies that have combined Line of Business strategy with IT (in other words, companies in which IT managers aren’t just doing their own thing) have been able to adopt cloud services more quickly
  • There is a ‘need to scale the Enterprise into the cloud’. As things stand, companies can’t move everything they do today into the cloud

Green IT Content Rating: 0/10.

Total Green IT Content Rating: 0/60.

Let’s see, that’s 6 times 10 equals 60, and 6 times zero equals zero: so nil points.

Am I being unfair here? Can such a general introduction to a complex subject hope to keep every special interest group happy?  No, but surely when it comes to the Cloud, Green IT is a special special interest group.

Fly the Flag in the Cloud

Finally, it escaped no one’s attention that four of the speakers had strong North American accents. Dr Stephen Unger was obviously British.

C’mon everybody! Isn’t it typical of the British to be inward looking and conservative in our attitudes to these issues? Surely with just a bit more effort we can find an American to run our Regulatory services?

What is the Cloud?

Back in the day, I worked as a network technician for one of Britain’s biggest companies. Whenever a new system came along, if the network architects had done their jobs properly, we would get a system diagram that explained how the network linked up people and computers and software. The diagrams looked something like this:

Pre-Internet Network Diagram

Pre-Internet Network Diagram

The Internet and the Cloud – Who Knew?

Then one day I woke up and the internet had happened. And suddenly I was presented with a network diagram that looked more like this:

Cloud Internet Diagram

Cloud Internet Diagram

At this point I went along to the network architect and had a brief conversation along these lines:

Me: What’s this cloud thing on the diagram?

Her: The internet.

Me: Why?

Her: So we can connect everything up more easily. The internet has lots of special computers like routers and switches that direct the communications between our computers and software and the people who use them.

Me: Is there anything else in the cloud?

Her: Not much. Yet.

Me: I think I’ll write a smog* about this. After I’ve listened to Tears for Fears on my room-sized ghetto blaster.
*Blogs didn’t exist then. I was predicting what they would be called once they were invented. I think you’ll find I was 50% right.

Today’s Cloud

So the origins of what we call the cloud today are in this diagramming technique. Back then, the cloud simply represented the internet. But the cloud and the way we use it have continued to develop over time.

The most obvious thing in the cloud is the web itself. In effect you are using a cloud service now as you read this smog blog. The words you are reading are encoded on a web page that sits on a web server (a computer dedicated to ‘serving’ web pages) which is connected to the internet. Nowadays we might say the web server sits in the cloud.

Just to complete the picture, you navigate your way through the cloud using a special set of communication protocols to convert the web page address (the string of characters in the address bar beginning with ‘www’ ) into an address that computers can understand.

So far so good.

But today, when people talk about the cloud, they are really talking about specific characteristics of the internet. A good marketing word was needed to quickly and easily summarise these characteristics, and ‘cloud’ is a pretty good marketing word.

The cloud – as the term is now being used – has come to mean a bunch of different things, all based upon the idea of running computers and / or their software on the internet (in the cloud) rather than on local PCs or servers or mainframe (very large) computers. Depending on who you are (a company, a private citizen) and what you are trying to achieve, the implications of the cloud and how you use it are far-reaching.

How companies use the cloud

Let’s imagine Acme Corporation, which is using cloud computing; and Zenith Corporation, which provides cloud computing services to Acme and other companies.

  • Acme workers access data, files and software programs from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. Not just on PCs, but on tablets and smartphones.
  • Acme’s data is stored on servers which are owned by Zenith and which sit in Zenith’s huge Data Centre.
  • The costs of purchasing and setting up storage devices is high and sometimes unpredictable. By having Zenith do this for them, Acme can lower their costs (they don’t need to own the servers or the skills needed to design and operate them). Because Zenith have well defined ‘price plans’ for their services, Acme can now also predict their costs more accurately.
  • Acme’s costs of developing or buying in software to run on its own computers are even higher. Zenith also has a SaaS proposition which Acme can use. SaaS is Software as a Service, which means that Acme can access software as and when it needs it. Again, Acme’s costs are potentially much lower and can be predicted more accurately. Two very well known examples of SaaS are Salesforce CRM and Google Apps.
  • The boss of Acme (which sells beds for cats) feels that when it comes to IT, the tail is wagging the dog. Too much time, effort and money are being put into IT, and not enough on selling cat beds. Zenith are the experts (thinks the Acme boss), so we’ll let them provide us with all of that clever IT stuff while we get down to the real business of pussy cat beds (this at least is the argument, though for many companies a complete outsource of IT of this type is an ambition rather than a reality).

How individuals use the cloud

Let’s take me as an example.

  • I use Google Drive and Dropbox to store files so that I can free up space on my laptop
  • Amazon’s Cloud Drive is where I store pictures and music
  • On the business / personal borderline, Mailchimp is where I go to send out formatted emails to lists of contacts – this is pure SaaS
The list of cloud apps is endless. I don’t use an iPhone, but if I did there would be many thousands of free and paid-for apps to access, and these are all in the “iCloud”.

Green IT and the Cloud

It is a green umbrella and it is under a cloudThe claim is that cloud computing is ‘green’. Green IT is all about using less energy (and cleaner sources of energy).

To an extent, cloud computing does this by being more efficient at storing data and programmes and by ensuring that computer capacity is just right (so that idle servers aren’t sitting around drawing electricity from the grid. One of the techniques for achieving this is virtualisation).

There is also the possibility that because of the scale of shared cloud computing services, less resources and energy are used. In other words, it is more environmentally friendly to have ten companies’ servers and software services in a single data centre than it is for each of those ten companies to have their own smaller data centres, servers, etc. This seems like good sense.

However, DCs use huge amounts of power, and data centre efficiency is a whole other other kettle of fish. Try what is PUE? for more on that subject.

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