Last week, an interesting study was published by Musictank, entitled “The Dark Side of the Tune: The Hidden Energy cost of Digital Music Consumption”. The report examines the environmental impact from an energy efficiency and carbon foot-print view, of the current shifts in content consumption from an “ownership of physical product” towards “access via cloud-based content services”.

The focus of the report is related to digital music and cites an example where streaming an album over the internet 27 times can use more energy than the manufacturing and production of its CD equivalent. However, it does make reference to the emerging impact of video services – which are significantly more bandwidth intensive than music.

The report believes that the increasing adoption of smart devices, combined with mass connectivity and high-speed broadband networks will drive increased adoption of streaming services (true!) resulting in the continuing rapid growth of data centers – in their reference “energy hungry server farms”.

From one perspective this is true – data center growth is expected to continue on its precipitous trajectory. Some growth rates between 2011 and 2012 based on data from the 2011 DataCenterDynamics Survey includes:

• The number of data center facilities is projected to increase 7%

• The number of racks is projected to increase 15%

• Data Center energy consumption is projected to increase 19% from 31GW to nearly 37GW

• Data center investments is expected to increase from US$30B to US$35B

Although the bulk of growth is associating with developing economies, there remain considerable growth opportunities in developed economies for expansion of IT functions within business, government and society.

So is Jevons paradox ringing true? That technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. In other words – if we simply used music as an example – it clearly takes more effort to go to a record store, purchase a CD, bring it home and play it on the CD player – then it does to download it from iTunes or stream it on Spotify.

Another study (Shipping to Streaming: Is the Shift Green?) from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst – demonstrated that non-energy optimized streaming of a movie over the Internet consumes 78% of the energy needed to ship a movie, but it has a carbon footprint that is more than 100% higher. However, in an energy optimized scenario (where solutions are employed that decrease the energy consumption of data centers and networking) – the results are significantly improved - further illustrating the need for continued research and investment in creating and building energy-efficient telecommunications infrastructure.

The Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) at the University of Melbourne in Australia estimates that the internet currently consumes up to 2% of the world’s electricity, but with the projected growth and use of broadband applications and services, including the rise of cloud computing, this could push this power consumption to 10% or more of the world’s electricity supply.

Cisco’s Global Cloud Index forecasts that Global Data Center traffic is expected to grow from 1,141 PB per year to 4,756 PB per year, with consumer traffic accounting for the largest portion.

Additionally, the number of per-user devices is also expected to increase with the number of users with more than 5 connected devices growing from 36% in 2010 to 69% in 2015.

These growth projections are troubling given the current concerns over climate change.

As mobility grows there will be a continuous need for consumers to have real-time to their services and content anywhere, at any time and on every device, which will only serve to accelerate cloud services and data centers.

So what can be done to improve these dire projection and actually make Big Data more Green?

At present, there are a number of consortiums and initiatives that are working to improve the outlook and make cloud-based services (and the delivery of them) more energy efficient as well as reduce their carbon footprint.

These organizations – such as The GreenTouch consortium, the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI) and the Green Grid – bring together end-users, policy-makers, technology providers, facility architects, and utility companies to collaborate on improving resource efficiency in information technology and data centers.

In addition, the EU is funding number of projects related to Green ICT – including FIT4Green and the GAMES project – both of which are focused on “greening” the data center.

While it is clear that continuous improvements must be made in the energy efficiency of equipment - the Open Data Center Alliance believes that a unified vision for cloud requirements – focused on open, interoperable solutions for secure cloud federation, automation of cloud infrastructure, common management, and transparency of cloud service delivery will ultimately provide these efficiencies and help reduce not only the energy consumption used by data centers, but the carbon footprint of the services they deliver.

Explosive mobile growth combined with the proliferation of new smart devices and increasing broadband penetration have all played key roles in the growth of the cloud and the resulting expansion of data centers.

As a consumer, I am now able to access content – particularly movies and music – that would have been difficult to find in my local outlets. Yes, I could possibly use Amazon, but why pay shipping charges when I can download it immediately and burn my own CD?

The Musictank report is not alone in highlighting the fact that just because content is digital it is more green, but as the focus shifts towards better utilization and higher efficiencies the cloud will more likely to turn green rather than black.

Teresa Mastrangelo Principal Analyst Broadbandtrends LLC