Developing energy efficient cloud computing for the net-zero future

Cloud computing has been going through a period of intense growth over the past few years, thanks in no small part due to the availability of high-capacity networks, low-cost computers and storage devices, and the widespread adoption of hardware virtualisation and service-oriented architecture.

While it facilitates much of our lives in the digital age, cloud computing also consumes a large amount of energy. Focus is shifting towards breaking the cycle of energy consumption in cloud computing, with innovative data centre operators providing solutions to the problem.

Leafcloud is a new, start-up cloud provider with a disruptive solution to make the cloud much greener. The architectural design for their data centres enables them to reuse the residual heat produced by cloud servers, thereby reducing the energy consumption of the cloud by as much as 80 per cent.

Niek De Jong, co-CEO at Leafcloud, says that the idea to reuse residual heat came from a previous company, called Nerd Allies. Leafcloud have since improved upon the original concept, based on providing a scalable solution to reduce waste energy at data centres.

“The original idea of using residual heat from a data centre to heat other buildings did not really have a good business case,” explains De Jong. “If you move the heat from the data centre, via a large heat network, to a different building, it is not very efficient. We thought there could be a better way to utilise this solution, because we liked the idea of reusing the heat but found the initial concept to be very ineffective.

“So, instead of bringing the heat from the data centre to the building, we decided to move the data centre to the building, similar to how edge technology is now beginning to incorporate data centres to bring the data closer to where it is going to be used.

“Our servers are now in the same location as the place which uses the heat, which is a much more efficient method of heat transfer, and a better business case overall.”

Energy efficiency and network reliability

By improving efficiency and compute utilisation, data centre facilities can reduce the amount of consumed power. Among their network of three sites, Leaf have improved their energy efficiency by deploying in apartment buildings, each utilising approximately 40 kilowatts of installed servers as well as the heat generated by the equipment.

This has a material impact on the building and on its energy consumption.

“It is a constant flow of energy, which we can put back in to the building,” highlights De Jong. “We could also increase the amount of energy by increasing the number of racks which we install.

“We try to limit the amount of energy we can give to a building to something close to how much that building would consume in a 24-hour period. We want to provide a baseload to the building, and then their big consumption of heat is done with other means of heat production, such as gas. For us, it is the most efficient way to be able to give the heat all the time.”

Reliability is also a key factor in data centre operation. Leaf cloud were one of the first operators to open multiple sites, realising that a network of multiple sites would increase stability.

Their aggregated data centre architecture includes a central, tier-one data centre which operates the data storage servers, and smaller sites in apartment buildings which are designed to perform compute operations. This is because compute is the part of the data centre that generates the most amount of heat, and therefore, less energy is wasted if this heat is reused in the apartment building.

While Leaf deliver a basic cloud service, the focus has remained on maintaining a high level of reliability.

“Of course, if you are in a boiler room of an apartment building, there is always the possibility of a fault with the water system or something,” says De Jong. “But that risk is mitigated because we have multiple leaf sites, which is how we manage to have a network which is as reliable as any other network, despite it being more spread out.

“On the security side of things, it is also as secure as any other operation because we leave the databases in our highly-secure central location, and we use full-disk encryption to communicate between the central site and the Leaf sites. The Leaf sites only do compute and automatic failover.”

Cost benefits and future expansion

Although the average enterprise customer is locked in to dealing with big providers such as Amazon Web Services and Google, Leaf is seeing a lot of traction among those enterprise customers who are beginning to turn towards green solutions for their energy issues. They are also gaining ground with developers who have more autonomy of choice, and are actively searching for the right solutions to their needs.

Leaf cloud computing compares favourably to many of the biggest providers in terms of cost too. This is because they have no costs associated with building a data centre, and providing security for that facility, as it is already based within a pre-existing structure with its own security measures. The only costs are for ID, power, and software developer personnel.

Leaf cloud is currently based in Amsterdam, but with customers all over Europe and beyond. Last year, they worked with a company from San Francisco who felt it necessary to revert to a climate conscious data storage solution, having witnessed the terrible forest fires which ravaged the state of California. Further expansion is expected.

“We are on the verge of expanding our network of Leaf sites in the Amsterdam region from two to five in total, and then we are looking for other zones where we could expand,” concludes De Jong. “The model itself is completely scalable, and you could deploy this anywhere you want. For us, it makes sense to go to another zone in Europe, because then we are closer to the customer. It is just a case of where we see the biggest market opportunity to deploy.”

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