A green cloud has many critical characteristics. There are design, operational and energy consumption considerations, for both physical infrastructure and the virtual software systems that run on it. We delineate and differentiate these requirements into our four pillars of green cloud optimizations.
The first two pillars are primarily under the cloud provider’s control of their physical infrastructure, and IT organizations can choose to use one or more cloud providers and switch locations within a provider.
1. 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 datacenter or customer uses with a “clean” megawatt represented by an REC. However, there is work being done to make data centers run directly off of wind and solar power, leveraging large battery storage, or even towards Pausable Data Centers, that shift workloads to different times of the day to take advantage of weather patterns.
2. 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. For example, Microsoft has built some of its data centers underwater and Google has data centers cooled by water pipes which are less energy intensive than traditional air conditioning. Vigilant provides smarter AI-driven cooling that adjusts depending on the server workloads and corresponding heat generated in the room.
The second two pillars are primarily under the cloud customer IT organization’s control in how they configure and use the cloud, although of course cloud providers can also optimize their services to perform better too.
3. 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.
4. Number and size of requests. Cloud services generate significant network traffic, thanks to the requests and responses made. And while the likes of Netflix or YouTube aren’t completely responsible for how many hours of video users watch, the shift towards a sustainable economy means that end users' energy use of digital products increasingly need to be considered as part of “Scope 3” emissions in an organization’s carbon reduction goals. To minimize traffic, you can firstly use or optimize caching so there is less distance to transfer the data from a local edge server to the user, and secondly 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.
For any tech or IT organization, there are simple steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint and optimize your cloud usage and costs.
1. Choose a greener cloud provider or region. Choose cloud providers, cloud services and SaaS tools that use renewable energy rather than ones running on fossil fuels. The Green Web Foundation provides a Green Host Directory where you can look up renewable energy powered providers, as well as two different open source tools you can incorporate into build pipelines to reduce fossil fuel consumption: Greenhouse and the Sustainable web plugin. One non-profit we worked with chose to host their application with Data Center Light, due to it being 100% renewable energy powered from hydropower and solar power in the Swiss Alps, and it also helped that it follows EU privacy laws, which are stricter than the US.
Microsoft, including Azure, matches 100% of its global annual energy use with renewable energy credits (RECs) and will shift to use direct local renewable energy within the next five years. Google, including GCP, also matches 100% of its annual energy use with clean power, and is working towards matching it on a 24/7 basis with local clean energy so it has carbon-free operations in the next 10 years. Amazon plans to match 100% of annual energy use with renewable energy within the next five years and be net zero carbon within the next 20 years. AWS’s annual energy consumption was matched with over 50% renewable energy two years ago, and matches 100% of its energy use with clean energy in five specific regions, in North America and Europe, out of its 22 global regions.
This illustrates that not just choosing a cloud provider, but selecting a region using direct local renewable energy has an impact too. One client identified their environmental impact could be reduced by changing their GCP region from Belgium to Switzerland (with a higher proportion of renewable energy in their grid due to hydropower), and by shifting workloads to a time of day when renewable energy supply is abundant.
While development teams may not be able to choose 100% direct, local, renewable energy for all cloud and SaaS services you use, it can be factored into their decision making process as another cross-functional requirement along with price, security, performance and so on. That way development teams become aware of the impact and tradeoffs and can make more informed choices. Over time the percentage of direct renewable energy in your digital supply chain should increase. Organizations can also request their cloud and SaaS providers to increase the speed and scope of their transition to renewable energy usage and to provide greater transparency into the location- and market-based carbon footprint of their individual usage.
2. Cloud optimization. The majority of cloud optimizations which reduce cost also directly reduce server usage and thus energy use and carbon emissions. Be aware though, this isn’t always the case: for instance with contract agreements or bulk/upfront purchase discounts.
Reducing your cloud or SaaS usage requires three things: first, having visibility into your usage, followed by steps to optimize your current setup, and lastly ongoing governance processes to ensure lower costs and energy usage are maintained. We’ve seen many organizations in which development teams aren’t aware of their cloud usage and costs, because it hasn’t been properly tracked and made available to them. For example, AWS tags allow organizations to track and allocate costs to different teams, enabling them to understand their individual spend, however we know of many organizations that don’t set up tags in the first place and lack access to this data. AWS is now making this feature even more accessible by allowing organizations to set Tag Policies that spans multiple AWS accounts and Organizational Units. Conversely, we’ve seen organizations where every development team has a cloud spend champion who is notified when their costs are increasing.
Lastly, cloud optimizations will only be successful in reducing cost, server usage and emissions if it becomes a part of the continuous software delivery process. This is thus a management challenge to create a process of continued review and optimization — both for cost and usage patterns.
3. Carbon measurement and reporting. Multiple cloud optimization SaaS tools have now appeared in the market that allow companies to track and reduce their cloud spend. We’re also starting to see tools emerging that connect cloud spend with energy and carbon emissions metrics. This is helpful for sustainability reporting, such as Azure Sustainability Calculator, Etsy’s Cloud Jewels and Green Web Foundation’s Green Cost Explorer. While these early approaches are paving the way, the market is yet to mature in this space and so most organizations have to determine their cloud carbon footprint on an individual basis since most cloud and SaaS providers don’t share this information.
We predict this may soon change, given the rise of carbon footprint calculations in code such as through standard emissions index APIs, automated emissions data gathering through IoT sensors and renewable energy credits on demand via APIs. We’re also working on a cloud carbon footprint estimator building on these early concepts to help advance the wider IT industry in green cloud optimization practices.
Organizations should be connecting their corporate sustainability teams with their IT cloud center of excellence or cost optimization teams to understand their cloud footprint, otherwise they are missing opportunities to reduce their impact.
Empowering developers with green cloud optimization tools is best for business: it lowers costs and GHG emissions and improves customer experience and development speeds. So why isn’t everyone doing it?
We see two common reasons. The first is that organizations are so focused on shipping products or their customer-facing parts of the business, that they don’t have enough resources to dedicate to internal optimization. This is an important consideration and where many organizations already have DevOps teams, platform teams or more recently, cloud centers of excellence: monitoring and reducing cloud costs and carbon emissions might fall under their remit. Or, it could be the remit of a new green cloud optimization squad.
Secondly, this is an emerging best practice. Cloud-native development is a relatively new organizational capability and so the subset of developers who are well-versed in cost optimization as well as environmental considerations is even smaller. Thus organizations need to build up this capability. There are benefits from so doing — especially as environmental credentials become a mainstream business requirement for employees, customers and investors.
We suggest creating a small, dedicated green cloud optimization squad as part of a new or closely-aligned existing team that can help implement and spread best practices internally. You can take a look at our Green Cloud Optimization Checklist to get started. Follow these steps to choose greener alternatives, optimize your cloud usage, and score a win-win for all stakeholders.
References: 1. “If the Internet was a country, it would be the 6th largest polluter in terms of CO2 emissions” https://www.sustainablewebmanifesto.com/; 2. “The internet will soon be responsible for nearly 1 billion tonnes of CO2 or 10% of global electricity usage.” https://serving.green/#co2-generation; 3. The tech sector contributes around 3 - 3.6% of global CO2 emissions which is on par with the aviation industry https://medium.com/@AINowInstitute/ai-and-climate-change-how-theyre-connected-and-what-we-can-do-about-it-6aa8d0f5b32c; 4. Data centers consume around 2% of world’s electricity https://www.forbes.com/sites/ibm/2019/12/09/ibm-tech-trends-to-watch-in-2020--and-beyond/#5da9ae634c1c; 5. Leaving a browser tab open long enough can consume more energy and resources than a physical newspaper, Frick, Tim. Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services6. Improvements to the design of YouTube could save the same CO2 footprint as 50,000 cars annually https://www.fastcompany.com/90346595/the-internets-youtube-habit-has-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-small-city
This article was amended on October 5, to include a reference to cloud demand doubling in the next five years.