Claim: Using the Cloud saves energy

Information technology managers take note: The cloud can be your friend. U.S. government researchers built a model to test the energy cost of running common business applications using centralized data centers instead of local systems.

Turned out the cloud’s energy efficiency advantages on a nationwide basis were huge – up to 87 percent, or around 23 billion kilowatt-hours.

“This is roughly the amount of electricity used each year by all the homes, businesses and industry in Los Angeles,” the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers said in a press release that accompanied the study [PDF].

Google’s Council Bluff, Iowa, data center (image via Google)

And this, again, is just the impact of a U.S. shift to the cloud. Globally, data centers are thought to account for 1-2 percent of electricity use, so there could be more gains to be had.

Now, it’s important to note that, as the study acknowledges, “The research reported in this report was conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with support from Google.” Google, of course, is eager to see activities moved to its cloud-based services.

Still, the model that the government scientiests built to test the impact of moving email, customer relationship management software (CRM) and bundled productivity software (spreadsheets, file sharing, word processing, etc.), is open-access, giving other researchers to pick it apart. You can give it go yourself, here.

Plenty of case studies on the cloud vs. local question have been done by consultants, but the Berkeley Lab team said that this open nature of their model – which takes into account factors such as data centers, transmission systems, client devices, transportation systems, and more – offers a power new tool for analysis.

“We can’t fly by the seat of our pants when it comes to assessing sustainability. We need numbers – hard data — to properly analyze how cloud computing compares to how computing is done now,” Northwestern University’s Eric Masanet, lead author of the report, said in a statement. “Well-thought-out analysis is especially important with new technology, which can have unforeseen effects. Our public model allows us to look forward and make informed decisions.”

Breaking down the savings themselves, the researchers said that “most of our estimated energy savings were associated with email and productivity software, owing to their widespread use  in U.S. businesses.”

The researchers admitted that “like all modeling efforts, our estimates are not without uncertainties.” They said a key to arriving at more solid numbers is access to more comprehensive and credible public use data on all components of digital services systems – including data centers, network transmission systems, client devices, user behavior and present day energy efficiency practices.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling