Sorry, the wireless cloud isn't green - it's an energy monster

(Nanowerk News) Access to cloud services using personal wireless devices will have the same carbon footprint as adding another 4.9 million cars onto the roads by 2015. How do we know this? Well, read on …
Over the past decade there has been an increasing take-up and use of personal wireless communications devices, such as mobile phones, wireless-enabled laptops, smartphones and tablets.
As a result, most people in the developed world now carry one or more of these devices with them wherever they go. They have transformed how society interacts with and uses technology.
With the widespread availability of wireless broadband access, we’ve created an environment in which anywhere, any-time access to data and services has become a way of life. These services, such as Google Apps, are supported by data storage and processing infrastructure located in large centralised facilities spread around the globe.
This infrastructure is commonly referred to as the cloud, and the practice of remotely storing, accessing and processing data across this infrastructure is known as cloud computing.
Into the cloud
Cloud computing has rapidly emerged as the driving trend in global internet services. It’s commonly promoted as a green technology, that can significantly reduce energy consumption by centralising the computing power of organisations that manage large IT systems and devices.
The substantial energy savings available to organisations moving their ICT services into the cloud has been the subject of several recent white papers, including Greenpeace’s Make IT Green and How Clean is Your Cloud?
Greenpeace, in particular, hit a nerve with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple, as the report findings weren’t favourable. And such reports have brought about some positive industry initiatives from Google and Apple.
Greenpeace suggested that the dirty power-hungry data centres are the biggest issue but in fact, the problem is much worse. Data centres aren’t the biggest issue. The trend towards everyone accessing the cloud, through our wireless devices, is becoming a real problem to energy consumption, and the networks are to blame.
By 2015, the energy consumption of data centres will be a drop in the ocean compared to wireless networks in delivering cloud services.
The issue is that we’re all accessing cloud services – things such as webmail, social networking and virtual applications – over wireless networks. It’s the modern way but wireless is an energy monster; it’s just inherently inefficient.
Wireless base stations, more commonly referred to as “mobile phone towers”, consume a large amount of power – typically many kilowatts. That’s because each antenna on the tower needs to radiate radio waves that are strong enough to cover a wide area.
Only a tiny fraction of the power in the radio waves is picked up by user devices, such as smartphones, tablets, etc.
So most of the radiated power is not used. This is a highly energy-inefficient process.
The American multinational Cisco reported in February that global mobile data traffic overall is currently increasing at 78% a year, with mobile cloud traffic, specifically, growing at 95% a year.
Of course, wireless is popular due to its convenience and ubiquity. We just get in-range to the wireless service and our laptop/mobile phone does the rest.
Based on current trends reported by CISCO, wireless access technologies such as WiFi and 4G LTE will soon be the dominant methods for accessing cloud services.
Research by ABI Research suggests that the number of wireless cloud users worldwide will grow rapidly to just over 998 million in 2014, up from 42.8 million in 2008 – an annual growth rate of 69%.
A closer look
Our team at the Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) set itself the task of finding out how much energy the wireless cloud will consume in 2015 compared to 2012.
We analysed product specification sheets, publicly available reports and white papers, peer-reviewed journal articles, and used all of the available information to create a wireless cloud energy consumption model.
Our energy calculations from this model show that, by 2015, wireless cloud will consume up to 43 terawatt hours (TWh) worldwide, compared with only 9.2 TWh in 2012. That’s a 460% increase in just three years.
In terms of approximate carbon footprint estimates, this is an increase in carbon footprint from 6 megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes of CO2 in 2015 – the equivalent of adding 4.9 million cars to the roads.
We found 90% of this consumption is attributable to wireless access network technologies (WiFi and 4G LTE). Data centres account for only 9%, with the remaining 1% accounted for by the network.
The full results and are contained in our recently released white paper "The Power of Wireless Cloud".
Of course, it’s unlikely people will trade away the mobile convenience of cloud services. A solution might be to increase the way network resources are shared among users. But more likely we’ll need a radical improvement in the efficiency of the technologies themselves, and potentially a fundamental change to the way data is managed across the global network.
Simply put, as we evolve towards individuals accessing cloud services via wireless, cloud services will not be the energy savers they were once promoted to be.
Source: By Kerry Hinton, CEET Deputy Director, Principal Research Fellow at University of Melbourne via The Conversation