“It sells computing capacity to corporate clients, generates heat with the computers… and then finds ways of channelling off the heat to use as central heating…His ingenious software ensures that when users turn up the thermostat, enough extra computation is rustled up from corporate clients to increase the emitted heat.“
I was interviewed by Enterprise Management 360 at the cloud world forum – the podcast of the interview is now available on their site:
This Guardian article touches upon something I have been complaining about for a long time. When you ran an application on your laptop which used lots of power you felt it – the laptop gets hot and burns your trousers. When you use a cloud service that power is hidden in a data-centre somewhere else and you will never know the environmental damage caused. While cloud providers often argue their data-centres are cleaner and greener than old ones, the problem is that because of there services we are using them for new things we did not do a few years ago – like social media!
Dell have produced a dongle which plugs into monitors HDMI port and connects to Bluetooth peripherals (keyboard/mouse..) and WiFi While it is a basic Android machine, its value is in automatically providing a virtualized PC environment from Dell’s Wyse data-centre.
Imagine dispensing with all the PCs in an office and simply having monitors with a dongle attached and leaving the PC maintenance to Dell in the cloud.
Obviously some will argue this is a greener option (yes if the Dell Cloud is multiplexing to provide the virtualized environments and using efficient machines); an easier option (not necessarily- since you are adding another layer of hardware in the mix – though you are outsourcing PC desktop maintenance to Dell); a cheaper option (who knows – that will very much depend on the service charges going forward – PCs aren’t exactly expensive these days in hardware terms – only in software and maintenance terms).
There is something about seeing physical data-centres that reminds us (and by us I mean those of us who think about cloud) that there is a physicality to this cloud… it is materially present if hidden from view.
If you are more interested in this physicality of the cloud read Andrew Blum’s excellent introduction “Tubes” – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tubes-Behind-Scenes-at-Internet/dp/0670918989
The report makes interesting reading for anyone concerned about the hidden and less obvious environmental impact of cloud services. While companies can see the electricity bill of their data-centre (and may have to report it), their use of Cloud Services means the electricity bill is hidden within service charges.
Once you move to the cloud you can locate your data-center anywhere where network connectivity is available. Given the cost of powering and cooling data-centers is significant it makes sense to find somewhere with green electricity and lots of available cooling – but also with a stable society and reasonable laws. Iceland is a good candidate.
Hence it is unsurprising to see the following from the Register:
This cable will provide “Iceland with the required connectivity to support the anticipated explosive growth of low cost, 100% carbon free, renewable energy powered data centres, in which the Wellcome Trust, has a major investment,” said EA president Greg Varisco.
In a recent Article Dustin Owens (2010) argues that elasticity defines the benefit of Cloud Computing. He states “Elasticity could bring to the IT infrastructure what Henry Ford brought to the automotive industry with assembly lines and mass production: affordability and substantial improvements on time to market.” (p48). The article is useful and focuses primarily on security however it was the comparison with Henry Ford which got me thinking.
It is a bold statement and deserves further analysis. In particular it is unclear what Ford brought the motor industry – certainly increased penetration, increased usage, increased availability all of which are positive. Arguably though it also brought with it urban sprawl, oil-dependence, reduced wages and Tailorism. One can imagine similar problems with the cloud. Urban sprawl might be similar to flattening organisational sizes and increasing risk. For those companies whose data-centre provides competitive advantage will see an increased landscape of small competitors capitalising on the Cloud to compete – the sprawl. Our oil-dependence will similarly remain – Cloud computing hides the electricity and environmental impact of our actions in data-centres hidden from view. Purchases are unlikely to know what percentage of costs are electricity – and are unlikely to care. Finally reduced wages and Tailorism. Prior to Ford those involved in developing cars were highly skilled and worked across the line – Ford reduced this movement of skill, and Fredrick Tailor developed this into scientific management. One can see similarities in the cloud provider with increased specialism among staff within these very large data-centres. With this comes risks – the generalist is better able to respond to radical architectural change and innovation. The generalist also has a more interesting job (a failure of Scientific Management). All this is speculation at the moment – I await my first Model T Cloud.
On another level however this comparison is interesting. because it is worth remembering that Ford was overtaken by General Motors for the simple reason that Henry Ford was against debt and demanded people pay in cash, whereas GE realised that borrowing to buy a GE car was beneficial. With the car you’re earning potential rose as you could travel for work and you were thus better able to afford the car.
In cloud computing the same might also be true. The argument behind Cloud Computing has always been that start-up ventures do not need to purchase the expensive IT equipment they can focus on Opex not CapEx. Similarly SaaS offers reduced CapEx costs. But one might also imagine a growth of financial services industries around the cloud. For example providing short-term loans to allow small companies to ramp up websites in response to incredible demand (and perhaps insuring against this). Or allowing small media enterprises to rent cycles for rendering films as a percentage of future profits. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if computing is a commodity we are likely to see spot-markets and commodity markets spawn. Can we imagine CDOs developing based not on sub-prime mortgages but on poorly used processor cycles within the cloud… or imagine insuring against a Denial of Service Attack such that when one occurs you can ramp up website services to respond, but not have to pay for the processor cycles! I can see many small companies taking out such insurance for their websites (if anyone profits from this – then donations received with thanks 🙂 ).
Owens, D (2010) “Securing Elasticity in the Cloud”, Communications of the ACM 53(6) 48-51 doi:http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1743546.1743565
Cloud computing hides the environmental impact of computing from the user. When we search using Google our own PC doesn’t suddenly start to cough – the fan doesn’t ramp up, our laptop doesn’t burn through the table. But somewhere in Google processors are using energy to undertake the search. Google is aware of this and tries hard to reduce this cost and its environmental impact.
There is a corollary of this though. When we use peer-to-peer software our processor uses more power and more electricity but we seldom notice. While perhaps tiny in aggregate this can be significant. And unlike Google few of us think about it, or try to use renewable energy to reduce its CO2 emissions.
Let me demonstrate with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.
SETI@home (the peer-to-peer application searching for ET) has 5.2 million participants and has produced an aggregate two million years of computing time. Taking an example of power usage for basic computers we can see that the difference between an idle computer and a in-use computer (i.e. where SETI is doing its processing) would be around 20watts ( though perhaps more). Given SETI has run for 17,520,000,000 hours that works out at about 350,400 Megawatt hours or 350.4 Gigawatt hours.
The UK average consumption of Gas and Electricity is about 22,338kWh per household (in 2007). In the ten years since it started SETI@home has used about as much energy as a town of about 15,000 people would use in Gas and Electricity in an entire year!
Interestingly assuming US consumer energy costs (since most will be in homes in the US) at about 8c per kw/h this is about $28million of electricity! The key points is that this is only about 50c per year per participant – scarcely enough to make them change their SETI screensaver, but highly significant in the aggregate.
And SETI@home has yet to discover anything alien!
A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk by the UK Government’s CIO – John Suffolk ( See here for more information on his role). At the talk John outlined his idea for a “G-Cloud” (government cloud) with the primary aim of reducing IT costs within government. Central government has around 130 datacenters, and an estimated 9000 server rooms, with local government and quasi-government obviously adding to this figure. Reducing and consolidating these through Cloud Computing would offer significant efficiencies and cost saving. Indeed given that 5% of contract costs are simply for bidding/procurement by simply having less procurement of resources costs would automatically be saved.
John outlined different “cloud-worlds” which he sees as important opportunities for cost saving through cloud computing in government.
1) “The testing world” – by using cloud computing to provide test-kits and environments it is possible to reduce the huge number of essentially idle servers kept simply for testing. For such servers utilisation is estimated at 7%.
2) “The shared world” – Many of the services offered by government require the same standardised and shared services. While these must be hosted internally they offer savings by using Cloud ideas. http://www.direct.gov for example has two data-centres at present – but could these also be used for similar services in other areas?
3) “Web Services world” – This was more unclear in the talk but centred around the exploitation of cloud offerings through web services. For example could an “App-Store” be developed to aid government in simple procurement of tested and assured services. Could such an App-Store provide opportunities for SMEs to provide software into government through easier procurement processes (which currently preclude many SMEs from trying).
This idea of an App-store is interesting. It would essentially provide a wrapper around an application to make transparent across government the pricing of an application, the contracting-vehicle required to purchase, the security level it is assured for use with, and details of who in government is using it. Finally deployment tools would be included to allow applications to be rolled out simply.
John acknowledged that many details need ironing out, particularly issues of European procurement rules (and the UKs obsession with following them to the letter of the law). While government might like to pay-per-use and contract at crown level (so licences can be moved from department to department rather than creating new purchases) this would be a change in the way software is sold and might affect R&D, licence issues, maintenance etc.
The App-Store would be a means to crack the problem of procurement and the time it takes. and so drive costs down for both sides.
What was clear however was the desire to use the cloud for the lower level application stack. To “Disintermediate applications” because “we don’t care about underlying back-end, only care about the software service” – Government can use a common bottom of the stack.
Indeed it was discussed that a standard design for a government desktop-PC might be an “application” within the app-store so centralising this design and saving the huge costs of individual design per department (see http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/317444/ict_strategy4.pdf#page=23 for more details).
Finally the cloud offers government the same opportunities to scale operations to meet demand (for example MyGov pages when new announcements are made, or Treasury when the budget is announced), however this scalable-service would also affect costs and might not be justified in the budgeting. While we look at the cloud to stop web-sites going down there is also a cost to providing such scalable support for the few days a year it is needed – cloud or no cloud.
Thank you to Computer Weekly for inviting me to this event!