Digital Planet: How Cloud Computing is becoming more sustainable

The emergence of cloud computing has had a useful effect not only on business performance but potentially on carbon emissions too. In the past, when companies ran their own servers, they had to make sure they had plenty of spare capacity to manage spikes in business activity such as those experienced by retailers in the peak pre-Christmas sales period. But this meant that much of their IT capacity went under-used for most of the year, tying up precious capital and consuming excess energy.

Now, the growth in outsourced data centre services means that big cloud providers can share their capacity across various customers. This allows them to smooth out the peaks and troughs in demand, leaving less server capacity unused and less unnecessary energy expended.

Yet, more needs to be done to make cloud computing less energy consuming and more sustainable. It has been calculated that in 2013, the information technology ecosystem represented around 10% of the world’s electricity consumption, while US data centres alone consumed 91bn KWh of electricity – enough to power every household in New York City twice over.

One of the big cloud companies turning this global sustainability challenge into an opportunity is BT.

BT’s cloud computing services for large organisations are delivered from more than 20 data centres operated by the company in 19 countries across five continents spread across the globe. The company extends this capability further still with high-speed and private connections to some 30 third-party cloud facilities internationally.

According to Neil Lock, vice president of BT Compute at BT Global Services, sustainability is key: “For tenders with our largest customers, security has always been paramount but now cloud services must be sustainable and offer the lowest ‘total cost of ownership’ too.”

For organisations that were once reluctant to outsource, Lock is now seeing a change in mind-set.

“Our customers are now saying, ‘We don’t need to build infrastructure ourselves, we’re comfortable with consuming that from a service provider. So, if you can deliver a sustainable business model, you’ll be in a stronger position to meet our demands.’”

With this in mind, BT announced in July that it was expanding its cloud portfolio with the addition of two new facilities owned and managed by Ark Data Centres.

According to Steve Webb, chief information officer at Ark, these data centres offer the world’s lowest “total cost of ownership”, based on a calculation which incorporates both financial and carbon costs.

Webb explains: “We use an advanced, cooling technology, able to exactly match the actual cooling demands of the IT. The design minimises mechanical cooling and results in a low-energy data-centre cooling system that operates with the principal of maximising free cooling, with filtered, ambient air using evaporative cooling only when required. Free cooling is available for up to 95% of the year and rather than re-circulating and cooling the hot air from the IT as with traditional data centre cooling, the Ark data centre solution operates like a server, by drawing in highly filtered fresh air, intelligently matching air supply to IT demand and exhausting hot air entirely from the data centre as required.”

This system is complemented by a purchasing strategy which prioritises renewable energy. Webb says: “We have a climate-change agreement in place which means that every year we have targets to drive efficiency and carbon savings throughout our organisation. If we fail to meet them, we get penalised.”

These practices allow Ark to help BT provide a service that manages cost and sustainability for its cloud services, while maintaining the high levels of security required by large organisations such as central and local government, defence and security, the police and healthcare.

Cloud of Clouds

BT’s secure and sustainable data centre services are part of the company’s Cloud of Clouds vision. Lock explains: “Cloud of Clouds is based on a new generation of sustainable cloud services that allow large organisations around the world to connect easily and securely to the applications and data they need, independently of the hosting location they choose.”

The vision builds on uncompromising security as well as the ability for organisations to roll out end-to-end policies that meet very stringent compliance and assurance requirements.

The combination of a portfolio of sustainable data centres and global connectivity has allowed BT to create specialist cloud environments tailored to the needs of global industries with their own “green” agendas.

These include the BT Radianz Cloud, a community for those working in global financial markets, BT Connected Science, a collaboration platform for research in the pharmaceutical industry, and BT Compute for Health, which supports highly secure applications containing patient-identifiable information. The Cloud of Clouds also allows the integration of more general cloud-hosted services from Amazon Web Services, Cisco, Equinix, HP, Interxion, Microsoft and Salesforce.

Lock says that organisations face two challenges in getting the most from the cloud. First, they need to take an end-to-end view of how they access their cloud-hosted data and applications, all the way from the data centre to the user’s desktop or mobile device. And then they have to integrate them.

“This isn’t easy and can demand specialist skills,” Lock concludes. “We are in a world where information is king. Whether for successful corporate systems or for measuring environmental progress, it is vital that organisations break down cloud silos and exploit their growing volumes of valuable data sustainably. That’s where BT can help.”

By Gareth Jones

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