More Gilding the Lily? On SaaS and the Green Revolution

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon – recently I was critical over lily-gilding in the cloud computing space – in that instance it was a case of someone holding out a cloud deployment as something way more than it was. This time it’s the turn of greenwash to come under the spotlight. Recently Chris Thorman wrote a detailed post looking at whether SaaS or on premises software is more “green”. The post generated a number of comments, mainly from other cloud computing evangelists who used it as yet another point of justification. In the spirit of CloudAve encouraging diverse opinions, I thought I’d chime in with my thoughts.

Chris’ analysis was made using the assumptions detailed in the following diagram;

saas v on premise energy consumption

His example was based on a medical practice with four physicians, initially using traditional on-premises software and then moving to SaaS.

In the former case, he’s details energy use for a desktop per physician plus a local server. Already I’m kind of dubious – a number of organizations I deal with of the size used in this example run a desktop machine as a server. In this case that would mean four desktops, one of which doubled as a print/file server. In that case you’d have a (roughly) 2600 KW/yr desktop/server plus three 600 KW/yr desktops for a total of around 1200KW per user. A commenter on the post also pointed out that;

You indicate that a Dell computer draws 300W of power each hour? Have you ever measured that? An inefficient computer will draw less than 100W, and a modern computer will draw closer to 50W.

Now things get interesting – perhaps in an attempt to fend of the naysayers who would say that medical records can’t be run in the clouds for privacy reasons (I disagree with that contention but no matter), Chris has modeled his analysis on running twin dedicated servers within a Rackspace data centre. He’s also made the assumption (wrong in my view) that by merely moving medical records to SaaS, all of a sudden our physicians will move from fully featured desktops to netbooks. I have an issue with that on a couple of levels;

  • Most people that I know who have spent time working on a netbook don’t really believe they’re viable for day in/day out work. Our physicians would still require “real computers”
  • A desktop to netbook comparison isn’t apples with apples – more fair would have been comparing a full featured notebook with a netbook
  • As a commenter pointed out “…there’s nothing stopping you from running a web-based application from an onsite-server, so you’d be able to switch to netbooks if you wanted to. Saying that netbooks can only be used with SaaS services is just plain incompetent”

Chris does go on to point out that using multi tenancy, the server energy consumption component can be hugely diminished (in his example down to 1% of the total server energy requirements or 130KW/annum).

Chris finished up, declaring from the pulpit that;

Using SaaS, our four physician practice now only consumes 611.4 KW per year running their EMR software. That’s 152.85 KW per year, per physician.

That’s an 93% reduction in overall energy consumption for a four physician practice using SaaS EMR software over on-premise software!

The problem I have with the article is that it’s another example of the power of statistics to tell whatever story the write wished. I’m an evangelist for cloud computing and, yes, it is correct to say that it is generally more efficient to run a large efficient data centre than a small private server set up – but much of Chris’ argument is fallacious – and it’s by traipsing out fallacies that we, as industry evangelists, get caught out.

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4 Comments
  • I don’t have detailed figures to back it up, but my sense is that the biggest energy savings being brought about these days by technology and the internet are derived through online submission of statutory returns.

    In my recent past as MD of a software business who developed accounting and payroll software apps, the UK’s tax and inland revenue body, HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs), has been pushing businesses to file online for around seven years across many different types of filing type.

    Moving paper based end of year payroll filings online has saved an inordinate amount in terms of the cost to produce and deliver many 31 million paper forms, and then return those completed forms back to the HMRC using conventional transportation.

    And that’s just payroll end of year filings, add in tax, company accounts and other statutory filing and you’ll end up with energy and cost savings well in excess of what a couple of PC’s might save per business.

  • I have felt for a long time that trying to “sell” cloud computing or as a Service products with “green credentials” is at best missing the point and more likely, more hot air than green.

    First, the example in the original example is, as you have pointed out – not an example that is well considered. Every group or team is likely to be different so generalizations are just that, no matter how well they are figured out.

    I don’t see many groups considering hosting arrangements where they simply rent servers at a data center. In a lot of ways it misses the point. The servers still have to be maintained (patches, tuning, upgrades, etc). They still have to have properly configured security, administation, etc. All that takes expertise and manpower. As a businessman – I want to have savings that mean something. If I can save the investment in infrastructure and the resource drain for maintaining it – that drops right to the bottom line. I’m interested. If it is also “green” in some way, that is a nice plus, but it isn’t the main reason I would subscribe to the services that make it possible.

    Cloud or SaaS offerings need to provide a} an advantage in productivity or expertise that makes the business more effective and b) a reasonable trade off in terms of cost over the long run. Anyone with a calculator can tell you that as a Service offerings are better in the short run than the long run for simple savings, but that isn’t the point anymore than “greenwash” – If it allows the business to focus on their core instead of IT infrastructure and maintenance, the ongoing cost is just an outsourcing decision- pure and simple. It really doesn’t need to make more sense than that…

  • Just when did i pass you the cynical baton?

  • @Gary – all good examples but we just need to be careful on this one. The original article was flawed

    @Paul – I think we share it there days ;-)

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