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Cloud computing and the urgent mission of green ICT

The link to the published article in Cloud Tech is here:

By Dr. Burak Kantarci, 15 March 2016

Green ICT is a global imperative that must be pursued with urgency. Everyone involved in information and telecommunications technology – including cloud computing – must take it into account in their work going forward. The concept recognises the limits of our historic focus on performance and how today’s trends, if they continue, will rapidly become unsustainable.

We have no choice but to rethink how we modify and interact with existing systems and how we design new systems if ICT is to continue to serve our increasingly digitised society. We will need exponentially greater energy efficient advancements in nearly every aspect of ICT.

These are bold statements, but studies reveal the hard realities upon which I base them.

The challenge

ICT’s global CO2 footprint accounted for 2% of all emissions. That’s about 830 metric tonnes of CO2, comparable to the aviation industry’s carbon footprint, which is widely cited for its climate impacts. ICT’s share of global emissions is projected to double to 4% by 2020, a mere four years away.

Global Internet use, which relies on ICT, is expected to grow 30% to 40% per year. If true, the Internet will experience 30 times its current traffic in 10 years. (Due to compound growth, that equates to 1,000 times its current traffic in 20 years.) In only ten years, if we do nothing, ICT will consume about 60% of global energy resources - an impossible burden to sustain. If we optimise ICT’s energy efficiency a 1,000-fold over 20 years, there’d be no net change in its energy use or emissions.

Green ICT and the cloud

The cloud both helps and hinders green ICT efforts.

As you know, the cloud offers a shared pool of resources to clients at costs far below what it would cost to independently assemble the same resources. That means offloading computing and storage resources to remote locations such as data centres. Data centres today are predominantly run in a sustainable manner, according to current best practices, including the use of renewable energy, when available. That’s good business because it keeps energy costs down. And major cloud vendors understand the challenge of sustainability and the impacts of their carbon footprints.

Conversely, the fact that cloud computing is accomplished in remotely located data centers tends to greatly expand network traffic in the backbone, which challenges its energy efficiency. And the affordability and availability of the cloud pushes more individuals and organisations to use it, exacerbating sustainability issues.

What to do?

There appear to be two major directions for green ICT and the cloud. First we must ensure that all cloud-related ICT is as energy efficient as possible, from sensors at the edge up to the network backbone and the data centers. The other avenue is to use cloud computing and ICT to create energy efficient technologies, systems and processes for consumer needs and industry verticals.

In the first category, we’re re-engineering the backbone to gain more energy efficiency. New paradigms to achieve this goal include software defined networks or network virtualisation that can separate the control plane from the data transport plane.

Sustainability of the cloud also requires cyber-physical solutions. Energy efficient virtual machines (VM) management, energy-efficient containers as a service (CaaS), energy efficient network dimensioning and even renewable energy-aware infrastructure management primarily focus on the cyber aspects.

Knowledge of the physical world is crucial, too. For instance, continuous thermal monitoring of data centers and adopting thermal-aware solutions for VMs and CaaS are required. Though researchers are studying this particular problem, we need standard protocols and interfaces for sustainable cloud networking.

From the users’ standpoint, offloading to the cloud would help improve sustainability. For example, people who work on shared documents in the business world typically use email exchanges to collaborate on electronic files, and proclaim they are going paperless. Instead, a more sustainable process would use online collaboration tools rather than local computers, which reportedly contribute roughly 40% of ICT’s GHG emissions. This transition lies within the scope of software as a service (SaaS) providers, who should design cloud-based software to entice end users to migrate to the cloud. As the platform as a service (PaaS) cloud becomes containerised, energy-efficient CaaS solutions remain immature.

In the second category, we can use the computing power and big data available in the cloud to devise the most energy efficient technologies, systems and processes for sustainability. A case in point is the production, distribution and market models for electric power, which has the single largest carbon footprint in the world. Smart grid is a step in that direction, making current practices more efficient and taking advantage of intelligent, distributed energy resources.  

These dual needs led to the creation in January 2015 of the IEEE Green ICT Initiative, whose mission encompasses a complete rethinking of how to design, build and use ICT. The Initiative works with 16 diverse IEEE societies that includes cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data, smart cities and smart grid, and with leading research institutions around the world. We cordially invite you to join our efforts.

Multidisciplinary approach

The new multidisciplinary world coordinated by the IEEE Green ICT Initiative should produce the sort of potential advancements exemplified by my collaboration with my colleague, Dr. Silvana Andreescu, who works in the chemistry and bio-molecular sciences department at Clarkson University.

Dr. Andreescu and her colleagues have developed paper-based, reusable, portable sensors that don’t consume energy and yet can detect changes in their environment. Interconnected via a mobile backbone, they might replace conventional environmental sensors at the edge of the cloud.

Future strategies

Today we’re working on energy savings in the data acquisition process that feeds the cloud and in multi-directional communications required by the cloud. Mid-term goals include energy harvesting at each step in the cloud’s processes. Longer-term, we’ll need to move towards no-power, battery-less devices at the cloud’s edge and, perhaps a redesign of the backbone and data centres at its core. In a sense, the future of our digital society depends on these game-changing efforts to bring unprecedented efficiencies to ICT and the cloud.