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ZDnet published information earlier today about a recent survey of 136 CIOs and IT managers conducted by Tecala in which participants were asked about top IT priorities. Of those surveyed, nearly all of the respondents said that virtualization and cloud computing rank at the top of their list.

Another major consideration that has been at the forefront of many in IT is energy efficiency and costs. With various metrics such as power usage efficiency (PUE), data center infrastructure efficiency (DCiE), and technology carbon efficiency (TCE), energy costs are an increasingly growing factor in the development of new technologies. With cloud computing taking center stage, and the many electronic components that comprise the networks that “provide cloud,” the importance of energy efficiency is amplified by the sheer scale by which these networks can grow.

The Problem? Energy Consumption in Data Centers

…[W]e’re seeing a growing interest in data center energy consumption. Since electronic components are constantly becoming smaller and more powerful, data centers must now deal with the heat generated by having thousands of high-power processors tightly packed into a small space. And because cloud computing is based on virtualization, the overall utilization of this hardware is much higher than it would be in a “one box, one application” data center environment.

The problem of exponentially-growing power consumption becomes even more pronounced when you consider steadily dropping hardware prices. We’ll soon reach a point where the electricity required to power data centers is a greater financial burden than even the hardware and maintenance costs put together.

Increases in power consumption usually come in double-helpings, since the amount of energy required to cool an object is theoretically about the same as was required to heat it. So it would seem reasonable that – by creatively eliminating your data center cooling costs – you could dramatically cut overall power consumption.

While some, such as Google’s Urs Hölzle, have argued for replacing on-premise IT hardware with cloud services, other studies show that cloud isn’t inherently more efficient. Rather, properly maintained and operated on-site server rooms could be more green than so-called “brown clouds.”

“Not all clouds are created equal. An on-site server room that is run with energy-efficiency best practices may be a greener alternative to a ‘brown cloud’.”

The research examined best practice, average and worst-case scenarios for five set-ups: on-premise with no virtualisation; colocation with no virtualisation; on-premise with virtualisation; private cloud; and public cloud.

Running a productivity application generally becomes more efficient as you move through those options, but it will depend on the carbon emission factor of the electricity used by the datacentre, as well as its energy efficiency and the capacity at which it is running.

What this study means, however, isn’t that we should just discard the cloud option completely. Rather, what we should take away is that cloud computing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that works in every single case. In some instances, running an application in the cloud could be much more efficient than running it in a server room.

But regardless of whether it’s in the cloud or in the building next door, the same variables apply for energy efficiency: from hardware utilization to the carbon footprint as measured by one of the above data center metrics.

The Solution? Energy Efficiency in Data Centers

451 Research, an organization focused on innovation and development in the area of enterprise IT, recently put together a report on common practices found in highly energy-efficient data centers. The six practices outlined in the report are:

  1. Take an integrated and holistic approach to efficiency
  2. Be smarter about cooling
  3. Generate your own power
  4. Save watts with DC power
  5. Use your IT equipment more efficiently
  6. Go the modular route

Read the full story – Six habits of highly efficient data centers

Beyond increasing the efficiency of data centers through changing on-site practices, another perhaps more innovative suggestion is to change the location where data centers are built.

One obvious solution would be to build a new data center in an area that has cold climate. And this seems to be the direction that the cloud computing industry is headed.

The CLUMEQ silo in Quebec takes advantage of the region’s cold weather to good use. Heat generated by their data center is used to heat the school during colder months.

Google recently built a major $230,000,000 data center in Finland, hoping to leverage the region’s cold temperatures and lower power rates in order to lower their costs.

Facebook is also constructing a new data center near the Arctic Circle in Lulea, Sweden, due to the region’s cold weather.

So, will cloud computing make the shift to cooler climates? Nothing is guaranteed, but with IT managers, CIOs, and other technology leaders poised to invest more in cloud computing, these energy shifts may be the only way to make cloud computing a long-term solution without also pushing energy costs through the roof.