How the Cloud Changes Everything

Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft, spoke to the Pivotal Leaders group at the Washington Athletic Club on September 27, 2011.  Notes by Tom Ranken.

Cloud computing is comprised of lots of computational services, analytical capacity, and energy utilization.  But it is more than that.  The cloud provides:

  • Nearly unlimited storage capacity, great computing hardware capability, and the ability to analyze very difficult problems.
  • Significant economies of scale in energy utilization.  It can cut costs by 30-90 percent over independent firm based computing.

Only three percent of data center energy is used on computation suggesting enormous potential to reduce energy utilization and costs.  Fifty percent of energy is used in cooling.  In trials in outdoor data centers, results have suggested that significant reductions in energy use are possible–a fifty percent reduction occurred in a UN trial in Africa.

Smart utilization of energy is an enormous data problem.  On the Microsoft campus alone, 500 million data points are collected daily.  This suggests that there are many points in which energy utilization can be decreased.  It also suggests that much of the data may have little or no significance. In hospitals, intense data collection has resulted in significant, non-obvious findings that have been quite important.  Energy data collection may yield similarly valuable results.

About seventy percent of the world’s water utilization is in agriculture.  Field trials have shown on a preliminary basis that monitoring water needs might lead to large reductions in the utilization of water.  Combining water needs in specific crops with weather and historical data can make water use more efficient.  In one trial in a winery, water use was reduced by fifty percent.  Cloud computing might also permit improved returns by informing farmers of market conditions and allowing harvesting when prices are optimal.

Mr. Bernard called for significant policy alterations to improve energy utilization, but was not optimistic about US prospects.  He argued that one of the best ways to make an impact on energy policy is when businesses band together to maximize their combined impact on local and state policy makers.