Your email inbox is a gas guzzler.
We’re addicted to data. We hoard masses of photos. Distract each other with jokes and cat videos via email. We pride ourselves on our low-paper, if not paper-less state. But computing carries an environmental cost, and those Grumpycat memes are impacting the planet. Our less entertaining pursuits are also storage intensive: of the 144 billion emails sent every day, about 60% are for business use.
Our gluttony for data is enormous, and it’s growing. We use an estimate 6,000 petabytes of data across the planet right now. In four short years, that amount is projected to more than double. Although we blithely refer to storing data in the cloud, that cloud is a physical place with onerous energy demands. Greenpeace has released a report about the growing impact of this data usage on the planet. It argues that the tremendous energy demands of data centers are invisible to the public, and that the onus is on companies to use “clean” energy – energy from renewable sources – rather than “dirty” energy produced from unsustainable sources, such as coal. Many, including Seattle internet giant Amazon, do not.
A 2012 investigation by the New York Times found that data center use an astounding amount of energy – the rough equivalent of the output of 30 nuclear power plants. Of that, as much as 90% is wasted because data centers don’t (as of the writing of that article) adjust for usage patterns and run constantly at peak capacity.
GreenQloud, a sustainable cloud solutions company based in Iceland, caught my eye at last year’s Seattle Interactive conference with co-founder Eiríkur Hrafnsson’s talk The Cloud Is The New Litter Box: The Environmental Impact of Cat Memes. I had considered myself to be an informed and environmentally conscious world citizen, but was appalled to find how little I knew about effects of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) on the planet. But it’s true – in addition to rapidly accumulating e-Waste – a subject deserving of a future post of its own – our cavalier hoarding of digital ephemera creates carbon. With the sharp rise in internet use world-wide, the problem is intensifying.
Recently I caught up with Paula Gould, CMO for GreenQloud to talk about how data can become more sustainable.
First things first: What’s an American doing living in Iceland and working at GreenQloud?
PG: (laughs) The same way most Americans in Iceland got here. I married an Icelander. I joined the company in 2012.
What does GreenQloud do?
We offer cloud-based storage and hosting. We were founded in 2010 and launched in 2012 with our public cloud product.
How is it that you are able to positively impact the environment?
Our public cloud is run on 100% renewable energy out of Iceland. Iceland is the only energy grid in the world that is 100% renewable; it uses 70% hydro and 30% geothermal energy.
It’s becoming a sophisticated data market. Many people now have either a core personal desire or a regulatory need to “green up” their supply chains and that includes data storage. So when you consider the fact that the ICT industry contributes nearly 4% of total global carbon emissions, you have to look for resources within your data supply chain to green up the amount of carbon that you as an individual or as a company puts into the environment.
At the same time, we wanted to give our users the ability to migrate between providers more easily.
Are you seeing a lot of awareness about the ICT impact on the environment?
We’ve always had to do a lot of education, but now we’re supported by a lot of third-party documentation like the McKinsey report on ICT. In our early days, we found that even a lot of industry pundits had this attitude of “That’s so cute that you guys are taking care of the environment, but really nobody cares.” There was talk about how easy it may/may not be and how much it costs, but we begged to differ. We see now that there are an immense number of companies that tout their “green-ness.”
A lot of these people are buying carbon credits to offset their emissions, but we feel that comes down to “greenwashing” as opposed to making a positive impact on the environment.
What kind of growth have you seen since your launch in 2012?
We run at about 14% growth from month over month, which we believe is about triple the industry standard for cloud adoption. We have our own goals, though, and we’re aggressive about pursuing them.
When I started with the company we were a team of about 10 to 12. I was the only woman and the only non-Icelander, with the exception of a couple of interns. Now we’re a team of forty, with about 15 nationalities represented. We have offices in Brazil, now, and Iceland, with one about to open in Seattle to open up sales channels in the U.S.
There are a lot of enterprise companies that have major goals for green energy. We’re going after that market aggressively. We’ve only had a private cloud service available since February, and it’s exceeded the public cloud at this point. [To understand more about the differences between private, public, and hybrid clouds, click here.] We want those private cloud customers to use greener services. For regulatory or privacy reasons, they can’t always use the public cloud. Many of them are using a “hybrid cloud – using public cloud storage for less sensitive information and to handle load during peak periods. The same software runs both, so the hybrid approach is pretty seamless.
You’re straddling the divide between ICT and sustainability. How does the increasing adoption of alternative energy – solar in particular – affect you?
People know us as the green company and they come to us for that reason. It’s certainly given us brand identity and competitive advantage.
If more and more companies are using renewable energy – great! That’s amazing; that’s what we want people to do. If we were resting on our laurels as a “green” company, it might be detrimental to our business. But first and foremost, we are a cloud that is easy to use and easy to migrate to.
It would make our day if people everywhere were truly being green, truly using renewable energy sources, and using them effectively. That’s what we want people to do. We’d rather they be using renewable energy than buying carbon offsets and telling everyone that they’re green. Here we are, a small company using 100% renewable energy from its inception to power our cloud, and other bigger companies are getting ISO certifications for sustainability based on their buying of carbon offsets. We try to cut through this “greenwashing” so that people understand what the difference is and why it’s important.
What evidence are you seeing that the “Green” factor is becoming more important in the ICT world?
Increasingly, we are dealing with CSO’s – Chief Sustainability Officers – in tech companies. Also, CMOs now exist – a decade ago, you saw Directors of marketing, but now marketing teams are more and more influential in developing and bringing products to market, and as a result we’re seeing better product fit. You see the same thing with CSOs. Often in the past, they’ve been a sort of showpiece for tech companies – they’ve been considered part of a marketing program. That’s really unfortunate, because they have significant influence over what vendors companies do business with. Now, ultimately, if a CSO isn’t greening the supply chain – they’re out of a job.
In the U.K. and much of Europe, there are increasing compliance demands for energy efficiency, and the CSO roles are gaining significant power.
Are there behavioral approaches to this problem?
Oh, yes. We get excited about issues or ironically about our progress in greening the world and we tweet about, post to Facebook, store data in Salesforce data bases. If you’re not changing your data operation to be more sustainable, you’re going to find yourself with a huge infrastructure bottom line.
And now you’re coming to Seattle. Why here?
Yes, we are opening an office in Seattle and partnering with Digital Fortress (the data center where we’ll be located).
We’re going into the belly of the beast, in a way. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft are both here. Amazon is considered the top public cloud providerer. We’re asked why we’re locating in a region where these huge cloud providers are, but the real reason is that this is where the sustainable energy is.
Seattle is the only place in the U.S. where there is a secure, sustainable energy grid. The Seattle City Light grid is 95-98% renewable. It’s removed from the Washington state grid, and it has a data center linked to it already where we can put servers.
Will there be other locations in the U.S.?
Yes. But Seattle is the U.S. location where the renewable energy is, and so it’s our first location in North America.
Do you have a target date for the Seattle location?
We’re nearly complete with getting the product that will be running ready, but we have some very significant European projects, and other processes – like getting visas for the Europeans on the team – are continuing. We hope to make an announcement soon. It’s super exciting for us, of course.
Is this personal for you?
Oh yes! Having spent many years in Southern California, I became very particular about the environment – even to the level of going to coffee shops that use vegetable-based packaging – that sort of thing.
Our team has a focus on a personal level. We participate in bike to work events in Iceland and we’re usually one of the top contenders, which is amazing, because we’re one of the small companies. There are lots of little things that we do to reinforce sustainability across our own supply chain.
Are you seeing much support for the green computing cause in the ICT industry itself?
You know, a lot of IT folks just inherently have this cultural value to do good on a personal level. They buy organics, bike to work or use public transport. When you think of it, it’s only natural that people would carry their personal passions into the workplace.