Mining the Possibilities of a Green Cloud

I recently finished watching the new television series, Grimm. The lead character in the adventure discovers that he is a descendent of the Brothers Grimm. This led me to reread the Brothers Grimm fairytales and inevitably, I came across Mother Holly again. To cut a long fairy tale short, a widow’s stepdaughter ends up working for the devilish Mother Holly. However the quality of her work is so great that Mother Holly ends up sending her back to the ‘real’ world covered in gold. When the widow discovers this treasure, she sends her biological daughter to Mother Holly hoping for more gold. Unfortunately she is not as diligent as her stepsister and ends up being sent back home covered in coal.

The story of Mother Holly is very dear to me. My great-grandfather, William Monk, opened a store in the gold rush town of Millwood in the Knysna forest during the late 19th century.  His children thought that the building resembled the scary picture of Mother Holly’s house in their Brothers Grimm book and Monk’s Store became known as ‘Mother Holly’s’. The name was localized to Materolli, which loosely translated means ‘Friend Elephant’. Today, the gold mines are closed, the forest is famous for the ghosts of its extinct elephants and Materolli is one of the last remaining buildings in the area. I have to wonder if modern mining techniques would have left us with some elephants.

The advent of cloud computing is, in my mind, the industrial age of computing. Enabled by universal internet connectivity, we can now share server processing power and data storage to create greater economies of scale. Centralizing processing and storage of the service of ‘computing’ can now result in cost savings larger than what the cost of delivery of this service (via the internet) to the consumer is. It is no different than the industrialization of farming. Large farms specializing in certain crops are far more efficient at feeding the world than each of us having a vegetable garden of our own.   Whether that efficiency outweighs the environmental burden of delivering the goods to your local greengrocer is another topic to consider. That said, environmentalists have recently put pressure on the big names in the business of cloud computing to fire up their clouds with things greener than coal.

Making sure that new infrastructure is sustainable is an excellent idea and can surely only be for the greater good. But will that mean an end to coal mining? Would the social cost of such a move not outweigh the value of the environmental gain?

It turns out that replacing the dark, coal-fired cloud with a green cloud may just have a radioactive metal lining. South Africa is getting (back) into the business of mining for rare earth minerals. These are a key component of many green technologies such as hybrid cars, LED lighting, solar panels and wind turbines.

Africa is highly dependent on mining – according to the United States Geological Survey’s Mineral Resources Program four African countries count on minerals for more than 90% of their exports.  A further seven depend on this industry for more than 80% of theirs.

It is clear that Africa needs economic growth to solve its social problems, and the world needs Africa’s minerals to solve its environmental problems. But how will Africa ensure that this golden opportunity is not taken with too high an environmental cost?  Will Mother Holly cover Africa’s children in a gift of gold or will the continent be left without its elephants?

I am close to finishing a piece of research that investigates the attitudes of companies that use SYSPRO towards integrated reporting. Integrated reporting is commonly referred to as sustainability reporting or the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line represents the economic, environmental and social impacts of organizations. Given the state of the global economy, I expected that the results would show that the world is more concerned about economic survival than anything else. I have been pleasantly surprised that the results show more balanced interest across the three bottom lines.

Earlier this year, my colleague Meryl Malcomess blogged about how ERP is revolutionizing business in Africa and in May, one of Africa’s largest mines went live on SYSPRO. Therefore, in answer to my question above, may I suggest something in the cloud?

For more information on this go to the 27 June special sustainability-themed issue of the Engineer.

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About Pierre Van Dalen

I started my career in software support at the age of 10, when my father acquired an accounting package to run the family business. We lived in the rural southern Cape in the mid-1980’s, when access to mobile phones was limited, and where the nearest official software support person was hundreds of kilometers away. I discovered that my natural aptitude for understanding this software proved as an asset in helping establish my father’s business. More than a decade later, I joined SYSPRO’s largest customer at the time, Columbus Stainless, as a Graduate Trainee. During this time, I convinced the company to keep up with the latest versions of SYSPRO, and was responsible for numerous software developments around SYSPRO, in a highly complex manufacturing environment. I have been SYSPRO’s Product Development Manager since 2005, and I am responsible for the Financial and Enterprise Performance Management areas of the product. Since joining, the financial modules of SYSPRO have become more effective in terms of supporting customers’ businesses – with, for example, increased supplier payment efficiency and real-time general ledger integration. I am qualified as a Chartered Management Accountant, and added a postgraduate Informatics degree to my résumé, while I was working full-time. I am currently nearing completion of an MBA, and I have also inspired my team to broaden their knowledge, with more than 25% of them currently pursuing IT or Accountancy related degrees. I enjoy gardening, and appreciating clever design in architecture and automobiles in my free time.

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