The cloud is not enough
The warnings about climate change are clear; the imperative to adopt more sustainable business practices is widely understood. And yet business leaders — though fully onboard with the urgent need for sustainable business practices — remain unsure how to effectively deliver on their promises to reduce their carbon footprint.
Nowhere is this demonstrated more than in the cloud.
Cloud has rapidly become the dominant platform for enterprise technology. Many business executives instinctively understand the transformative potential of cloud, when it comes to flexibility, agility and scalability. But the environmental impact of moving to the cloud is far from clear.
Too often, business execs assume that by moving to the cloud they’re being green. After all, shifting from power-hungry, often decades-old, on-premises data centers to something new in the cloud should surely be better for the planet? What’s more, some of the biggest cloud providers claim carbon neutrality through renewable energy credits and powering newer facilities with renewables.
It’s an appealing vision. But the facts aren’t quite so simple. Yes, the cloud provider’s hyperscale infrastructure can be more energy efficient than on-premise data centers, but data centers account for ~1% of global energy use — and that figure is rising.
Here’s the thing: every workload that you move to the cloud uses energy. And some workloads are real energy hogs. One recent study showed that training a single machine learning model produced as much carbon emissions as 125 roundtrip flights from New York to Beijing.
And often, your dev teams will be unaware of the energy use of various workloads, unintentionally consuming more than necessary. Here’s where green cloud thinking comes in.
A green cloud strategy stresses the need for analysis and optimization so that you can understand the environmental impact of your cloud computing and curtail the cloud’s growing carbon footprint and energy demand.
And there are strong business reasons for adopting green cloud strategies. These include:
Reduce costs by optimizing workloads to run more efficiently, using fewer resources, in the cloud
Boost sustainability efforts by reducing your carbon footprint.
Improve customer experience by creating more responsive applications that use less energy
Decrease time to market for digital products by removing inefficiencies that consume unnecessary storage or compute resources
Attract and retain talent by taking positive action on climate change
Attract investors who are increasingly seeing sustainability as a core business competence
If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it
Online makers portal Etsy is at the forefront of green cloud thinking. It set up a Sustainable Computing Taskforce to reduce its environmental impact. Its goal: to reduce the intensity of its energy use by a quarter by 2025, including its office operations and its computing footprint.
And as part of that initiative, Etsy moved from collocated data centers to Google’s cloud — attracted in part by the energy efficiency of its cloud infrastructure. In doing so, it lost its ability to measure energy consumption — something it felt uneasy with. That’s why it developed a methodology to measure energy consumption, based on usage data and publicly-available information such as emissions factors and Google Cloud’s power usage effectiveness (PUE).
Armed with that knowledge, Etsy has been able to make significant progress on its goal to reduce energy usage associated with its workloads.
Why is this possible? One reason is that cloud is different to on-premises operations. If you simply lift and shift workloads from on-prem to the cloud, you’re missing an opportunity. Running an application that was designed to run in a data center without modifying it for the cloud can result in significant network traffic.
By optimizing it for the cloud, you not only save money by reducing that network traffic, you also cut the associated carbon emissions.
Building on innovations from sustainable leaders like Etsy, Thoughtworks and a small cohort of innovation partners have developed an open source solution, Cloud Carbon Footprint, which provides visibility and tooling to measure, monitor and reduce your cloud carbon emissions. The software converts cloud utilization into estimated energy usage and carbon emissions, producing metrics that can be shared with employees, investors and other stakeholders.
Cloud Carbon Footprint supports multiple public clouds, breaks down emissions by region, service, and project/team, and helps teams identify the areas with the highest ROI to reduce wasted cloud usage and carbon emissions. Since Thoughtworks first developed Cloud Carbon Footprint, other providers — notably Microsoft and Google — have produced their own carbon calculators. If you’re comfortable putting your cloud infrastructure with one provider, using their carbon calculators can be a sensible choice.
“Climate is a key competency that firms will need to develop if they want to stay relevant in the 2020s,” says Chris Adams, co-director of The Green Web Foundation. “Tools like Cloud Carbon Footprint are the kinds of open, extendable logical infrastructure we need as responsible technologists to work towards a sustainable digital industry.”
Tom Greenwood, managing director of Whole Grain Digital agrees. "We have been trying to piece together the puzzle of energy and emissions for digital services for several years and this is an exciting step to make digital carbon accounting more accessible. Cloud Carbon Footprint will help organizations build a more complete picture, and perhaps more importantly, to take action to reduce energy and emissions."
Thinking Machines Data Science has already been actively using Cloud Carbon Footprint. According to CEO Stephanie Sy, “as a company that’s just starting to look into our carbon footprint, this tool shortcuts a huge piece of the work for us. Through the dashboard, we discovered that neutralizing our carbon impact will actually be more feasible than we previously thought. We might even have a path to carbon neutrality in 2021! Next, we'll be drilling into the emissions of individual teams and projects so we can strategize how to reduce further."
The four pillars of green cloud optimization
Your IT organization will need to drive much of your green cloud efforts. To succeed, they’ll need to consider these four criteria when looking at cloud providers and cloud locations:
Energy source. This means using cloud infrastructure powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels — or use Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to “neutralize” fossil fuel emissions by matching out each “dirty” megawatt of electricity a data center uses with a “clean” megawatt represented by an REC. There is also work being done to make data centers run directly off of wind and solar power, as well as progress towards Pausable Data Centers that shift workloads to different times of the day to take advantage of weather patterns.
Energy efficiency. Cloud infrastructure that has high energy efficiency when measured through PUE (power usage effectiveness). Typically, that’s achieved through innovative approaches to cooling.
The cloud customer IT organization’s can control how they configure and use the cloud, optimizing the following:
Number and size of servers. Servers are what physically consume energy; by reducing the number of servers you use, you reduce your carbon footprint. Organizations can optimize the performance of their applications and reduce unnecessary storage, but it will still have the same cost and energy usage unless they also reduce the number or size of servers on which their tech estate is running.
Number and size of requests. Cloud services generate significant network traffic, thanks to the requests and responses made. To minimize traffic, you can use or optimize caching so there is less distance to transfer the data from a local edge server to the user. Additionally, you can reduce the amount of data being transferred by dynamically reloading only the components that are needed and prioritizing mobile-first user experiences since smaller devices and screen sizes require less data.
Time for action on cloud
As we’ve seen, there are many reasons for firms to embrace green cloud, from bottom line savings to brand enhancement. But even for converts, success can depend on cultural changes.
Today, many dev teams are measured on the speed at which they can deliver. Unless you’re willing to make sustainability part of their KPIs, the likelihood is that it will become an afterthought.
Given the cloud's accelerating energy use, there’s no time to waste. The business case is clear. The tools you’re dev teams need are maturing. Now all we need is commitment.
If you’re interested in knowing more about your cloud carbon footprint, why not check out this tool?