Every Cloud needs a Silver Lining

Chances are you’ve been using the cloud today, even if you didn’t know it. Yet did you ever stop to wonder how the electricity needed to power the cloud was generated?

Probably, like me, you hadn’t. But then I came across a Greenpeace campaign that wants to persuade three of the biggest providers of cloud-based services to move away from coal-fired power stations and switch to renewable power sources. You see, according to Greenpeace, the coal-fired plants that power these giant data centres are one of the world’s top sources of airborne carcinogens and greenhouse gases. Having encouraged Facebook to create a data centre policy that “states a preference for access to clean and renewable energy supply,” the environmental campaigner has Amazon, Apple and Microsoft in its sights.

All three companies have invested heavily in cloud-based services but questions are now being asked about their impact on the environment. According to Greenpeace, if the cloud were its own country, it would rank fifth in the world for how much electricity it uses, and that electricity demand will triple by 2020!

This isn’t to say the cloud is a bad thing: moreover, it’s the opposite. I rely heavily on the cloud, and cloud-based applications are at the forefront of my computing arsenal … so this post is by no means a moan at any of these companies. For a start, I have a lot of Apple hardware and their cloud service helps to keep all my devices in sync without having to physically connect them. So that’s a big plus for my photos, music, apps, mail and calendar, but what else can the cloud do?

I’d imagine that high on the list of anyone’s fears are the loss or theft of their personal belongings. Burglary, fire and computer malfunction are all real threats, and no amount of insurance will compensate for the loss of your family photos, or those important files you’ve been working on for months – or in my case years! Backing up to the cloud can at least provide some piece of mind.

And there are other benefits.

As we all know, writers can be whimsical creatures, and being chained to a desktop computer can sometimes sap the life out of the budding writer’s precious grey matter. The obvious solution for me was to get a laptop so that my work could go with me. Okay, so I wanted to be that cliched writer sitting in Starbucks with a laptop and an iced mochafrappachocachinolattecanofredo – but I’m over that now!

The Cloud...more than a transportation device for a monkey sage

The main problem with this way of working (besides decreased bladder control: well, coffee is a diuretic) was having multiple copies of the same project floating around all over the place if you forgot to transfer files between desktop, laptop, flash-drive, etc. Cue Dropbox. Dropbox uses Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) to store its clients data across multiple data centres in the United States. It also syncs wonderfully with the writing software I use – Scrivener – which also syncs easily to Simple Note just so my iOS devices don’t feel left out. None of this would be  possible without the cloud.

When I read the Greenpeace article I had a minor guilt pang: I use all three companies to differing extents. Last week, as I upgraded my Macs to the latest operating system, I had a thought – what if by buying the latest version of their software Apple donated a small portion to a charitable cause, and in Apple’s case it’s pretty obvious where that should go. Apple name each new iteration of their operating system after a big cat, and since I started using Macs I’ve gotten through Leopard, Snow Leopard, and now Lion, animals that face a struggle to survive in this modern world.

And it’d wouldn’t just be monetary contributions that would help make a difference. Apple has become so big that any campaign they lent their support to would benefit from such exposure. There’s an obvious target for Amazon, too: buy your books from Kindle and not only save paper, get Amazon to donate money to the rain forests. It wouldn’t be such a big ask – would it?

I’ve found a lot of people blogging with passion about conservation issues; some giving up their spare time to volunteer for charities; others making changes in their lives to leave less of an impact on an individual basis. Surely, this is the future for all of us, including big business. If you’re the CEO of a mega corporation, or just a lowly blogger like myself, we still share the same planet, breathe the same air, and recycle the same 60% of water in our bodies.

So if you’re struggling for something to do for Earth day tomorrow, why not visit the Greenpeace campaign and sign their petition, and help to give the cloud a silver lining.

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