Microsoft Cloud Brought Down to Earth by Unflattering Times Feature

A New York Times report offers an in-depth look at a Microsoft data center, putting "the cloud" in solid terms and some green hypocrisies in focus.

How clean is Microsoft's cloud? This weekend it was The New York Times, not Greenpeace, asking the question and offering what some will find to be an unflattering answer.

With the world increasingly turning to cloud-based solutions, The Times, by focusing on some controversy around a Microsoft facility in a feature story and video, offered a concrete look at what the ethereal, largely misunderstood term refers to.

In Quincy, Wash., Microsoft purchased 75 acres of former bean fields in 2006, where today it runs a data center—a cloud—that hosts its Bing search engine, Hotmail service and other cloud-based services, according to The Times.

The data center has become a difficult neighbor for what was once a farming community, which is glad for its presence and tax dollars but leery of some of its energy sources and put off by some of its practices.

Redundant power sources are essential for 24/7 data centers—Amazon made headlines in July when a storm momentarily knocked its data center offline—and Microsoft now has 37 diesel generators that it uses for backup energy. When the first of those generators was approved, emissions containing diesel particulates, which are carcinogenic, weren't classified as toxic pollutants by the state of Washington, so strict limits weren't imposed. Today, critics say the generators are too close to an elementary school and log too many hours. The generators are intended for emergency use; Yahoo, which also has a data center in Quincy, ran its generators for 65 hours in 2010, while Microsoft ran its generators for 3,615 hours that year, wrote The Times.

The report also compared the way the two tech giants responded to fines from the local utility for overestimating their power use over a period; each had estimated a range of power they would require, and the utility had budgeted for it. Yahoo, in response, paid a nearly $95,000 penalty.

"In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty ... Microsoft proceeded to simply waste millions of watts of electricity, records show," the Times reported. "Then it threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an 'unnecessarily wasteful' way until the fine was substantially cut," The Times reported, citing documents it had obtained.

“For a company of that size and that nature, and with all the ‘green’ things they advertised to me, that was an insult,” Randall Allred, a utility commissioner and local farmer," told The Times, putting a fine point on what some would say is the hypocrisy of the cloud as a "green" solution.

In April, activists for Greenpeace rappelled down Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, across the street from Microsoft offices, to unfurl an 800-square-foot cloud-shaped banner that asked, "Amazon, Microsoft, how clean is your cloud?"

“People want to use innovative devices and technology like the Kindle and Windows Phone without having to connect to a cloud powered by dirty and dangerous energy,” Casey Harrell, a Greenpeace analyst said in a blog post afterward. “Amazon and Microsoft have some of the brightest, most innovative engineers in the business. They have the potential to power their cloud with green, renewable energy, but are falling behind competitors Google, Facebook and Yahoo in the race to build a truly clean cloud.”

Apple, responding to an April Greenpeace report on the power sources being used to fuel clouds, said that its data center in Maiden, N.C., will be "the greenest data center ever built," and that an Oregon data center planned to open in 2013 will run on "100 percent renewable energy."

Wakefield Research, commissioned by Citrix Systems—a company that offers cloud-supporting solutions—surveyed 1,000 Americans in August and found the cloud to be a very misunderstood term.

"Most respondents believe the cloud is related to weather, while some referred to pillows, drugs and toiler paper," the firm said in an Aug. 28 statement.

A third of those surveyed, said the firm, believed the cloud to be "a thing of the future," though 97 percent were already using cloud services, such as online shopping, banking and file sharing.

"The most important takeaway from this survey is that the cloud is viewed favorably by the majority of Americans, and when people learn more about the cloud they understand it can vastly improve the balance between their work and personal lives," Kim deCarlis, a vice president of marketing at Citrix, said in a statement.

The Times, like Greenpeace, is working to ensure it's a well-rounded understanding.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.