Push This Button to Serve Web Pages With Clean Electricity

IBM has patented a way to cut the carbon emissions of cloud computing. 
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By some estimates data centers now consume more than two percent of the United States’ electricity, and tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft have spent hundreds of millions of dollars greening up their operations by buying renewable energy as the economy increasingly moves into the cloud.

For companies that outsource their work to the cloud, though, there’s no way to know whether a data center is being powered by planet-warming coal or carbon-free wind, nor whether it is energy efficient or a power hog. But what if you could push a button, say a green button, so all web pages—like this one—were served up in the most environmentally benign way possible?

That’s the idea behind a patent recently issued to IBM for “environmentally sustainable computing in a distributed computer network.” 

“We want cloud providers to use the most environmentally friendly equipment they have but they’re not doing it now as the industry standard,” Keith Walker, an IBM master inventor—yes, that’s his title—told The Atlantic.

Rather the industry standard is to get the job done as fast as possible regardless of the environmental consequences. The system that Walker helped invent would change that. It would give data centers operators what IBM calls a green button.  The operator would push the button when a customer wanted computing performed in the most environmentally friendly way possible, even if that meant the task would take longer. Once pushed, the computing task would be performed at data centers using the greenest electricity and on machines that were the most energy efficient.

“Once I as a user or company have indicated to that cloud provider we want to use this green button feature, all of our requests will be routed among the devices that have the best environmental impact,” he says. “I could say I really don’t care how long a job takes—if I need you to spin up 30 servers, I want them to be the greenest.”

That means crunching big data to slash Big Data’s carbon footprint. For instance, if you’re on a shopping site and click on a pair of Levi’s, IBM’s green button would calculate the environmental impact of fulfilling that purchase by considering the energy efficiency and other green attributes of all the devices deployed to accomplish the task.

“That’s not just the obviously environmental characteristics like electricity, but natural, gas, water and how environmentally friendly are the materials used in the device, including the recycling and disposal plans for the device,” says Walker. “There might be a case where a device consumes more electricity but if it is overall more environmentally friendly, that might be the best device to use.”

And if a cloud operator runs multiple data centers, the green button would consider which one uses the cleanest energy and factor that into the environmental impact of all the servers and other devices in the data center.

There are some obvious challenges in transforming the green button from a patented idea into reality. One involves in collecting all the data on the environmental impact of devices in a data center. Companies typically operate data centers with NSA-like secretiveness and many may be reluctant to share data on electricity consumption. But that is changing—witness Google, which formerly refused to disclose its carbon footprint but now releases an annual report detailing its greenhouse gas emissions.

The green button represents a fundamental shift in the way data centers would operate and the way tech companies approach computing. The question remains whether any one will push the button and build such a system.

IBM spokeswoman Jenny Hunter says it’s too soon to say whether the Big Blue will create a product incorporating the technology. “We openly license our IP to others and also work with university partners who help test our inventions, so we think this is the type of thing that will quickly generate interest,” she said in an email.

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Todd Woody is an environmental and technology journalist based in California. He has written for The New York Times and Quartz, and was previously an editor and writer at FortuneForbes, and Business 2.0.

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