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Sorry, the wireless cloud isn’t green – it’s an energy monster

Access to cloud services using personal wireless devices will have the same carbon footprint as adding another 4.9 million cars onto the roads by 2015. How do we know this? Well, read on … Over the past…

Cloud services are not the energy savers they were once promoted to be. half alive - soo zzzz

Access to cloud services using personal wireless devices will have the same carbon footprint as adding another 4.9 million cars onto the roads by 2015. How do we know this? Well, read on …

Over the past decade there has been an increasing take-up and use of personal wireless communications devices, such as mobile phones, wireless-enabled laptops, smartphones and tablets.

As a result, most people in the developed world now carry one or more of these devices with them wherever they go. They have transformed how society interacts with and uses technology.

With the widespread availability of wireless broadband access, we’ve created an environment in which anywhere, any-time access to data and services has become a way of life. These services, such as Google Apps, are supported by data storage and processing infrastructure located in large centralised facilities spread around the globe.

This infrastructure is commonly referred to as the cloud, and the practice of remotely storing, accessing and processing data across this infrastructure is known as cloud computing.

Into the cloud

Cloud computing has rapidly emerged as the driving trend in global internet services. It’s commonly promoted as a green technology, that can significantly reduce energy consumption by centralising the computing power of organisations that manage large IT systems and devices.

The substantial energy savings available to organisations moving their ICT services into the cloud has been the subject of several recent white papers, including Greenpeace’s Make IT Green and How Clean is Your Cloud?

miss gadget

Greenpeace, in particular, hit a nerve with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple, as the report findings weren’t favourable. And such reports have brought about some positive industry initiatives from Google and Apple.

Greenpeace suggested that the dirty power-hungry data centres are the biggest issue but in fact, the problem is much worse. Data centres aren’t the biggest issue. The trend towards everyone accessing the cloud, through our wireless devices, is becoming a real problem to energy consumption, 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.

Cloudbusting

The issue is that we’re all accessing cloud services – things such as 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.

Wireless base stations, more commonly referred to as “mobile phone towers”, consume a large amount of power – typically many kilowatts. That’s because each antenna on the tower needs to radiate radio waves that are strong enough to cover a wide area.

utis emanon

Only a tiny fraction of the power in the radio waves is picked up by user devices, such as smartphones, tablets, etc.

So most of the radiated power is not used. This is a highly energy-inefficient process.

The American multinational Cisco reported in February that global mobile data traffic overall is currently increasing at 78% a year, with mobile cloud traffic, specifically, growing at 95% a year.

Of course, wireless is popular due to its convenience and ubiquity. We just get in-range to the wireless service and our laptop/mobile phone does the rest.

Based on current trends reported by CISCO, wireless access technologies such as WiFi and 4G LTE will soon be the dominant methods for accessing cloud services.

Research by ABI Research suggests that the number of wireless cloud users worldwide will grow rapidly to just over 998 million in 2014, up from 42.8 million in 2008 – an annual growth rate of 69%.

A closer look

Our team at the Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) set itself the task of finding out how much energy the wireless cloud will consume in 2015 compared to 2012.

We analysed product specification sheets, publicly available reports and white papers, peer-reviewed journal articles, and used all of the available information to create a wireless cloud energy consumption model.

Ayanami_No03

Our energy calculations from this model show that, by 2015, wireless cloud will consume up to 43 terawatt hours (TWh) worldwide, compared with only 9.2 TWh in 2012. That’s a 460% increase in just three years.

In terms of approximate carbon footprint estimates, this is an increase in carbon footprint from 6 megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes of CO2 in 2015 – the equivalent of adding 4.9 million cars to the roads.

We found 90% of this consumption is attributable to wireless access network technologies (WiFi and 4G LTE). Data centres account for only 9%, with the remaining 1% accounted for by the network.

The full results and are contained in our recently released white paper The Power of Wireless Cloud.

Of course, it’s unlikely people will trade away the mobile convenience of cloud services. A 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.

Simply put, as we evolve towards individuals accessing cloud services via wireless, cloud services will not be the energy savers they were once promoted to be.

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30 Comments sorted by

  1. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    Thank you Kerry for your informative article. Makes you realize what dumb clucks we are.

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  2. Henry Verberne

    Former IT Professional

    Surely this is another solid argument for the use of electricity production by renewables?

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  3. George Harley
    George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Dogsbody

    Reminds me of Dennis Overbye's quaintly summerised three principal laws of thermodynamics: 1, you can't win. 2, you can't break even. 3, you can't get out of the game.

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  4. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    This is a global figure and you need to, at the very least divide it by the population served ... you also need to consider the other side of the balance sheet ... e.g., my copies of Science are no longer paper and delivered by road and possibly air (not sure where they are printed).

    On the other hand the Australian cattle industry, all by itself, has been generating more than twice this (69 million tonnes of CO2) every single year (on average) since 1990 (plenty before, but the UNFCCC data go back to 1990) by the simple act or converting forest to grass (called deforestation when it happens overseas).

    And those 69 million tonnes are just the tip of the iceberg ... once the grass is stocked we have the methane ... generating an impact way more intense than a mere 69 million.

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  5. Con Zymaris

    Untethered Polymath

    Kerry,

    while it's likely that the 'Cloud' industry has overstated the effectiveness of its low-energy promise, it's worth keeping the following in mind :

    "Technology is making it easier to go car-free."
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/22/why-arent-younger-americans-driving-anymore/

    "Since June 2005, vehicle miles driven have fallen 8.75 percent. The decline has persisted for 92 months and there’s no sign it’s abating."

    Technology can be seen as one of the reasons more people are catching public transport, and driving fewer kilometres.

    I would imagine that the savings that this introduces to the table far-outweigh any increase in CO2 emissions from data-centres.

    -- Con

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  6. Ken Taylor

    Engineer

    This is a non problem. Looking at the report I couldn't find the per user energy consumption but it is tiny. From table 6 we get Tablet with WiFi (in home) 3.6 Watts and from table 4 User device Power consumption for Tablet 2.5 (Watts). So while I sit nice and warm in my home with the heater consuming 4KW watching YouTube videos, the wireless transmission to the tablet is adding another 6.1 watts or 0.15%.

    What a beat up!

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    1. Jonathan Maddox

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Ken Taylor

      It's the mobile phone towers which don't go on your household bill which consume tens of KW each -- but even then, each serves hundreds of people at once. So yes, telecommunications and information technology hardware is only a tiny fraction of total consumption, dwarfed by heating, cooking, manufacturing (not least the manufacturing of the gadgets themselves!), transport, etc.

      ifixit.org/4546/happy-earth-day-dont-recycle/

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Ken Taylor

      Also include the energy use of the cloud services that you consume. e.g. Google, Gmail, iCloud, Dropbox etc.

      Read the first paragraph of the article again.

      Ken - it is a bit rich to criticise an article you did not read or did not understand as a "beat up".

      This is such a big deal that Google are proposing a new energy tariff in the US.
      http://www.theverge.com/2013/4/22/4243798/google-renewable-tariff-proposal-duke-energy-north-carolina

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    3. Jonathan Maddox

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Apparently there are some states in the US that have legally prohibited a green energy tariff option. Nice, and unsurprising, that Google (which is a big renewable energy investor in its own right) is trying to get that fixed, but I'm not sure this is an acknowledgment that data centre power consumption is "a big deal".

      Only about 2% of electricity consumed worldwide is used in data centres, and this figure is not growing particularly quickly despite massive growth in the processing and storage…

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    4. Jonathan Maddox

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Generally speaking it costs less for a data centre operator to replace old equipment with something that uses less power and does more work after two years or less, than to pay just for the power to keep running the old equipment.

      This is the real scandal -- all the obsoleted equipment, most of which doesn't get recycled. At least the amount of real toxics in it (mercury, cadmium, lead) is being reduced through regulation.

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    5. Ken Taylor

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      OK if we add the data centres providing the cloud services that is another 9% according to the report. An extra 9% on a tiny number is still a tiny number.

      I read the first paragraph again. Still looks like a beat up. It reads like "lets try and make this sound big" when as a proportion of any individuals total energy consumption it is tiny.

      First this is a projection of 4.7 x their current estimate and even then if wireless does "have the same carbon footprint as adding another 4.9 million cars onto the roads by 2015" in the context of annual worldwide passenger car production of 60 million or so it still isn't much.

      It reads like lets try and make this sound big when in fact as a proportion of any individuals total energy consumption it is tiny. Now if I was willing to watch Youtube videos in the cold that would make a significant

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    6. Ken Taylor

      Engineer

      In reply to Ken Taylor

      Should have read:-

      OK if we add the data centres providing the cloud services that is another 9% according to the report. An extra 9% on a tiny number is still a tiny number.

      I read the first paragraph again. Still looks like a beat up. It reads like "lets try and make this sound big" when as a proportion of any individuals total energy consumption it is tiny.

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    7. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      "Only about 2% of electricity..." - That is a lot considering all the other uses we have for electricity.

      But I agree - already the cloud has changed the way that I work (IT) and shop requiring a lot less travel. The NBN should add to that.

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  7. David Stonier-Gibson
    David Stonier-Gibson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Electronic Engineer/Small business owner at SPLat Controls - electronic control systems

    4.9 million cars? World-wide? My car is now staying in the garage 4 days out of 5, because I am working at home with my laptop and a 100/1.5Mbps Optus cable (on a good day with a tail wind, at least!). (A weighty argument for Labor's NBN versus the coalition's National Narrowband Network!). I spoke to our Orlando agent for 2 hours today, with video, via Skype.

    Yes, data centres are becoming some of the largest individual power consumers in the world. But I bet they are keeping more than 4.9 million…

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    1. David Stonier-Gibson
      David Stonier-Gibson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Electronic Engineer/Small business owner at SPLat Controls - electronic control systems

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      That's us, well, our customer. I actually wrote the software. The controller (I helped specify and design) measures incoming temperature and humidity and calculates the optimum amount of water to inject into the evaporator/heat exchanger.

      Interestingly the technology was originally developed in the Soviet Union, and used to cool military buildings in Afghanistan. The fellow who designed it "jumped the pond" and got snapped up by a family of visionary engineers in Denver.

      It all actually, truly, genuinely works, providing the "ambient climate" is not too humid.

      I am happy to be part of the solution. We are also making two types of controller that prevent miners in W.A. and Qld from leaving the air conditioners on in their "dongas" (cabins) when they go to work. More on the case studies page of our website. (I hesitate to post a URL, got to stay nice!) like a tread mill for camels and shredding millions of motor cars

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  8. Alex Cannara

    logged in via Facebook

    And, as any engineer can explain, wireless isn't. Every cell tower, every server farm, every business with networked communication, depends on -- wait for it -- wires to local telecom company facilities, or microwave links to same or proprietary locations.

    Google is doing the latter to avoid the large, unpredictable delays of the public telecom/internet system. Automated stock/bond trading systems co-locate in Jersey server racks...

    And, mobile iGadget battery charging/discharging is relatively inefficient, so we now waste about 1GW running all this stuff.

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    1. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      Alex, please. I have tried to explain the "scientific method" to so many people, so many times in so many simple terms. But you bombastically declare "as any engineer can explain". That is not the case. Even engineers have differences of opinion. When were you given the gift of holy writ?

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    2. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to George Harley

      George, when I say "any engineer", it means someone who actually graduated, not someone who just sat around drinking, etc. for 4 years.
      ;]
      And, "differences of opinion" aren't going to change where your cell signals actually go, now are they, George?

      By the way "bombastically" isn't really the word, remember writing class? "Supercilious" might be better, eh?
      ;]

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    3. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      Your peculiar definition of engineer seems an exercise in self-aggrandisement.
      I did not criticize your singular opinion on the vanishing cell phone signal.
      I chose bombastically because it was precisely the word I wanted, you supercilious tosser.

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    4. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to George Harley

      So George, what's your point? Almost all Aussies I know are great guys & gals.
      ;]

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    5. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      No point. No issues. No bandwagon. Just a hope for disinterested (you might have to look that up as you had trouble with bombastic and supercilious) commentary on TC.
      And no patronising.
      Regards

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  9. Eric Dodge

    retired tech

    Kerry.
    Thanks for this interesting article. I have an idea to save power and improve service. Phone cells have many more channels than are required for normal daily traffic. This is to allow for peak loads like a bush fire or a footy game.During a fire there are complains that there is not enough channels for everyone to log into the fire web site.My idea is to rework the software to provide what we could call a public interest channel. The software would detect that there are ten people looking at a particular web page at the same time, the tower would then transmit that page on the public interest channel. customers would have a public interest APP so an infinite number of phones could view that web page. This could reduce the number of channels transmitting nothing and wasting power. Eric.

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