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The shift towards cloud computing will have environmental benefits as inefficient corporate data centres and server rooms are replaced by 'hyperscale' cloud facilities, according to Google's global head of data centre infrastructure.

Along with companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, Google owns some of the largest and most power-hungry data centres in the world. It already runs 15 hyperscale facilities globally, with four in Europe - and plans expansions next year as it targets enterprise business users, as well as supporting search services, YouTube and more.

However, due to the scale of their operations and their ability to customise infrastructure, these hyperscale providers tend to be the most energy efficient, and are increasingly making use of renewable energies such as wind and solar power.

Speaking at Data Centre Dynamics' Zettastructure event in London today, Google's Francois Sterin said that accessing cloud services will result in an overall improvement in terms of energy consumption, while demand continues to grow.

Sterin cited a 2013 report from University of Berkeley, California, which claims that moving business applications used by 86 million office workers in the US to the cloud would reduce energy consumption by 87 percent.

"[This is] because they are moving from an on-premise, couple of racks, couple of closets [environment] to public data centres that are optimised and run to be energy efficient," Sterin said. "That actually means powering the city of Los Angeles with that [energy saved]."

He added: "The move to cloud is going to be a big driver in terms of reducing the overall consumption, and making sure that the data centres grow in a sustainable way."

Sterin went on to say that overall efficiency gains will be enabled by what Berkeley researchers have termed the 'hyperscale shift'.

In a paper from June this year, the researchers posited a scenario where 80 percent of servers in small data centres move to the data centres operated by the likes of Google and its competitors. This could result in a 25 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2020, compared to the current usage trends.

Sterin said: "It could go from 70 TW hours to less than 50, if you take a more aggressive shift to the cloud solution. This is going to happen in Europe and the rest of the world."

AI reducing power consumption

Sterin highlighted some of the various techniques Google has used to reduce its data centre power consumption in the past 15 years, such as building its own power supplies.

"In 2001 we started designing our own power supply for the servers," he said. "We realise that the manufacturer didn't have any incentive to reduce the consumption because they don't pay the power bill. We pay, so therefore what we did was partner with power supply specialists to increase the efficiency of such power supply from say 60 percent to 90 percent."

Most recently it has looked to artificial intelligence to find further gains by optimising its power usage effectiveness measurement (PUE). 

First this involved a Google engineer building algorithms around 20 parameters, such as outdoor wind direction

"Sometimes it is used as a joke, like nobody cares about the outdoor wind direction, but in that case we care about it," Sterin said. Then attention turned to the expertise at Google's DeepMind division.

"Some of [DeepMind's] guys worked with our data centre facilities team to even further improve that, not taking 20 parameters but 120 parameters to increase more," Sterin said.

"The combined first approach plus the DeepMind expertise could even further improve the PUE to 1.06 or 1.05 or something like this.

"It is beginning to be rolled out so we don't necessarily have the full data yet on how it works in practice. But the simulation on some pilots shows that it's helping to reduce the cooling electricity by another 40 percent."

'Environmental benefits not just green-washing'

Google is aiming to use 100 percent renewable energy in the future. It mostly relies on wind power, due to cost, but Sterin said that solar energy is quickly becoming a viable alternative. It is also open to using other sources, such as biomass.

Sterin acknowledged that when large companies discuss 'green' initiatives, it is often perceived as PR.

"A lot of people say it is just about 'green-washing': when you procure renewable energy, when you want to be 100 percent renewable, it is just about having a good brand and to have a good image," he said.

The reality, he added, is that while the company wants to be seen as a leader in tackling climate change, there are clear cost and budgetary gains too.

"It is also about making sure that we have cost competitive supply of energy," he said. "Especially in Europe for instance price of power has been very volatile."

"The finance guy I have in the US says he doesn't understand all that volatility, he wants a fixed price like he is used to. So what do you do? We found that renewable energy was the way to achieve that as well.

"So the message here is that renewable energy is important but it also makes business sense."

This makes sense for customers too. 

"As we are moving more and more to being a cloud provider, most of the customers will be interested in having a very clear power supply or clear solution," he said.

"More than half of the Fortune500 companies have corporate responsibility goals and that is why you have seen all the DC providers and all the hyperscale providers getting into those renewable energy deals," he explained. "You do this because your end customer will also have some goals in renewable energy."

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