Intelligent Energy

Gmail 80 times more efficient than standard e-mail, Google says

Gmail 80 times more efficient than standard e-mail, Google says

Posting in Energy

Google compared Gmail to the in-house email systems it's replaced for more than 4 million businesses. The energy stats are astounding.

Search engine giant Google regularly plugs the security and simplicity of its cloud-computing services. Now it has good reason to tout its potential energy savings as well. Google released a report this week that claims switching to Gmail can be almost 80 times more energy efficient (PDF) than running the in-house email systems found in businesses, universities and organizations.

Concerns about reliability -- reinforced Wednesday when Google Docs suffered a 30-minute outage -- have kept some organizations from switching to cloud-based services. But the results of Google's study does offer a convincing business and environmental case for the cloud.

The case study compared the energy savings and carbon footprint of using Gmail via Google Apps versus housing local servers to manage the same email. The company used information from the traditional in-house email systems it has replaced for more than 4 million businesses.

Technically, Google says its cloud services are all carbon neutral -- and have been since 2007 -- by buying offsets, reducing energy consumption at its data centers and the like. But for this case study, Google modeled the carbon footprint before offsets are applied. What it found was an incredible gap in efficiency.

David Jacobowitz,  Google's program manager of green engineering and operations, offered up another way to think about the energy efficiency of Gmail. He wrote on the official Google blog:

It takes more energy to send a message in a bottle than it does to use Gmail for a year, as long as you count the energy used to make the bottle and the wine you drank.

Why Gmail is more efficient

When a user checks their email, energy is consumed in three places:

  • through the PC, phone or laptop that directly accesses the email;
  • the network such as the wireless routers, switches;
  • the server, meaning the computer or group of computers that receive, send and store email.

Switching to a cloud-based email primarily impacts the server level energy use. That's because cloud-based services are typically housed in highly efficient data centers that operate at higher server utilization rates and use hardware and software that's built specifically for the service they provide -- conditions that small businesses are rarely able to create on their own, Jacobowitz wrote.

Go ahead, watch YouTube all day long

Google ran a similar calculation for YouTube and says it found the servers needed to play one minute of YouTube to consume about 0.0002 kilowatt hours of energy. Meaning, you would have to watch YouTube for three straight days for Google's servers to consume the amount of energy required to manufacture, package and ship a single DVD. Google included the energy used by all the Google infrastructure supporting Gmail and YouTube when calculating these numbers.

Photo illustration. Cloud image from Flickr user GTRist

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure