Every click costs CO2. From the pajamas you ordered online to the social media post you liked five minutes ago, an increasing proportion of your daily interactions with the internet are powered by massive cloud computing operations . These forests of steel and silicon are mostly rack after rack of humming, flashing servers, and are usually powered by the grid, and are representative of coal and natural gas, which make up the lion’s share of the global electricity market.
As such, cloud computing contributes between 2.5% and 3.7% of all global carbon emissions, according to a 2019 study. That’s likely to increase dramatically over the next decade as enterprise cloud adoption continues to trend higher, with one estimate putting the total cloud market at $1.95 trillion by 2032. Such numbers are the product of an always-on culture for online services, argues Sukhpal Singh Gill, professor of cloud computing at Queen Mary University in London. “If you want to like or post a comment on Facebook, you want to do it right away,” Gil says. “You need a quick response from the server for that. And for that we need to do cloud computing because we want to create a fast service.”
Until now, this connection has been on the minds of consumers and business leaders alike. However, recent surveys have shown that both sides are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the cloud services that support the online economy and what they can do to ensure emissions do not rise in tandem with our growing reliance on data centres. “We’ve conducted a CEO study every year, and perhaps for the first time ever, sustainability – and specifically environmental sustainability – has emerged as one of the top ten business priorities,” said Ed Anderson, Gartner analyst and expert on the cloud computing market.
Despite this, companies do not seem to be translating this into meaningful steps to actually increase the sustainability of their cloud operations. Justin Keeble should know. As Managing Director of Global Sustainability at Google Cloud, he got his first glimpse of a company-commissioned survey measuring investment in green commitments in European organizations. “An amazing 90% of C-level executives said ESG initiatives are a top organizational priority,” says Keeble. “But only 9% are committing dedicated resources to sustainability goals.”
This is all the more remarkable given the simple fact that it is indeed in the financial interest of most companies and organizations to prioritize sustainability in their cloud operations. “There’s this very clear correlation between the money you pay for the service and the carbon emitted by the services you use,” says Anderson. Therefore, “ultimately, the cloud will become this accelerated path to achieve these sustainability outcomes.”
Our dependence on cloud computing is growing every year – as is the industry’s hunger for energy, renewable or not. (Image by petrmalinak/Shutterstock.) A sustainable cloud
Hyperscalers are at the forefront of the campaign for a sustainable cloud. The big three – Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud – have all been vocal in touting their own initiatives to increase the sustainability of individual data centers, as well as setting specific targets related to their overall carbon footprint, use of water, and compliance with the general principles of the circular economy.
Initially, Gil explains, many of these efforts were focused on optimizing data center efficiency, with some of the most interesting examples being training new machine learning models to squeeze energy savings out of one server operation or another. However, training such models consumes massive amounts of power, which has led major cloud providers to focus on larger gestures instead, such as B. the complete power supply of data centers with renewable energy.
“In the last decade, Google has purchased more renewable energy than any other company,” Keeble claims. These include, he adds, new solar and wind projects in Chile, Finland and Denmark, with similar deals pending in the UK, US and Spain. Increasing water use efficiency is also a priority, as Google Cloud commits to investing in community projects that “replenish 120% of the water we typically use in our offices and data centers to improve the health of local people watersheds.”
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AWS and Azure have also made similar commitments to building sustainable clouds, with the delivery giant-turned-cloud superpower pledged to run all of its operations on renewable energy by 2025. Microsoft is also “on track to 100% renewable energy not only for our data centers but also for our buildings and Microsoft campuses,” says Michael Wignall, Azure Business Lead for Microsoft UK. “Our data centers in Sweden and Finland have also proven that they can save electricity and even export energy to the grid by returning waste heat to the heating systems of residential buildings in the same district.”
However, it is not enough for companies to simply place their data and software functions in a public cloud. Business leaders and CIOs looking to build a sustainable cloud architecture also need to make decisions about how best to use the servers available to them. One way to achieve this, according to Gil, is to simply reduce their network dependency on cloud computing and make existing devices and software more efficient. “I think we should rely more on edge computing than cloud computing,” he argues.
There are also choices companies can make in the cloud themselves, Anderson says, starting with relying on vendors to provide tools that can help them meet their own, individual sustainability goals. “This,” he suggests, “could take the form of reference architectures, reporting and tracking tools.”
Such tools are already provided by hyperscalers. For example, Google Cloud offers its own Carbon Sense Suite and Azure its Sustainability Calculator and Synapse Analytics for Sustainability, which enable companies to make highly specific decisions about how best to reduce their carbon footprint in the cloud. In the latter case, it has helped reduce emissions for stakeholders ranging from puffins to air travelers, with SSE using Azure’s AI capabilities to monitor the impact of renewable energy construction on the ecosystems of these increasingly rare seabirds , while Heathrow Airport did, says Wignall used Azure data services to “enable sustainable growth for its people, the local region, the national economy, and the industry at large.”
Hyperscalers certainly speak a big game when it comes to sustainability, Anderson says. “They outline specific goals and targets,” he says. “I give them high marks for that.” Elsewhere, however, hyperscalers have been criticized for prioritizing power purchasing agreements and carbon credits of dubious effectiveness over more proven methods of reducing emissions. A recent Climatiq survey of emissions from hyperscale vendor regions around the world found that data centers in the Global South still lag far behind their contemporaries across the equator. Therefore, Anderson says, companies that want to prioritize sustainability in their cloud operations should still be smart in their final choice of vendor. “What did you do to achieve that? [emissions] goal, and do they show a meaningful process towards that goal?” he says. “Are you reporting openly and transparently? Can I see evidence of that in their technology and architecture to convince me that they are making really good progress with it?”
Cooling systems in data centers like this consume a lot of energy. (Photo by WaitForLight/Shutterstock) Cirrus Ambitions
This alludes to another challenge to future-proof the cloud for future generations. Companies, as well as providers like Google Cloud and Azure, must be willing to make concrete choices about how they use the cloud to reduce emissions, Anderson argues. “I think it would be foolhardy to think that cloud providers have already solved this problem, [that they can] simply outsource to the cloud provider and “Boom! I’m sustainable,'” he says.
Such decisions are effectively taking place in a regulatory vacuum. While governments around the world have their own broad-based emissions targets, some even requiring their own data to be moved to the cloud, specific rules governing data center use and environmental abuse remain few and far between. Therefore, the responsibility for building a truly sustainable cloud is left to private companies for now. Still, according to Anderson, “I think most cloud providers realize that at some point it may or may not be a mandatory compliance requirement.”
Somewhat perversely for antitrust activists, it may even help that the public cloud market remains an oligopoly for the time being. After all, it’s easier to scrutinize the environmental practices of three companies than three hundred. “Amazon, Microsoft, Google: there’s a very small list that really dominates that part of the market,” Anderson says. “And they get a lot of attention when it comes to how much of the world’s resources they use in terms of energy, electricity, bandwidth, etc.”
What remains is action by businesses of all shapes and sizes in the decisions they make to build a greener, greener cloud. For the CEOs and CIOs who are increasingly looking to rely on humming, faraway server racks to drive the change their business needs, Anderson has a message: “You must take ultimate responsibility for your contribution to the overall sustainability outcomes in all organizations.”