More than one-third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies now have net zero targets – aiming to completely negate the amount of greenhouse gasses produced in their course of business. And as the criticality of net zero targets intensifies, organisations are increasingly looking at their environmental, social and governance (ESG) agendas. Specifically, the environmental impact of data centres is under scrutiny. Electricity use associated with data storage, management and processing can be a major contributor to organisations’ carbon emissions.
It’s generally acknowledged that cloud computing is a more energy-efficient option for data than on premise or data centre storage. In fact, sustainability is quickly joining financial, security and agility benefits as a major driver of cloud adoption. But unlocking the sustainability potential of cloud is not always straightforward.
Three Ways Cloud Aids Sustainability
1. Fewer Emissions
Shifting IT operations from data centres to a public cloud provider is thought to lower carbon emissions and energy consumption. Accenture’s 2020 report The Green Behind the Cloud suggests that migrations to the public cloud can reduce CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year, which equates to taking 22 million cars off the road. The report also highlights a potential 5.9% reduction in total global IT emissions with broad, public cloud migration.
2. Reduced Energy Consumption
Capitalising on the promise of cloud often requires an entire transformation of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Approaching this strategically, with sustainable engineering practices in mind, can deliver further environmental benefits. For example, when the right programming language is chosen for the job, businesses can reduce application energy consumption.
3. Wider Sustainability Opportunities
Using public cloud can deliver better cost-efficiency through factors like increased workload flexibility, improved server utilisation, and more energy-efficient infrastructure. Shifting to public cloud brings flexibility and scalability while lowering expenses, which releases resources for other sustainability opportunities.
Cloud is widely held as a route to a more environmentally friendly IT infrastructure. Yet while it offers various ways to improve energy efficiency it does still result in emissions. Public cloud use is classified under the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol’s scope 3 for indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain.
So, as with any cloud benefits, simply being there doesn’t automatically deliver improvements. It’s the way you use cloud that can make a material difference to sustainability.
Over the past 12 months, several major cloud providers have stepped up with measures to support activity in this vein. Google Cloud launched a new sustainability platform in June 2022, and Azure added sustainable workloads guidance to its Well-Architected Framework in October 2022. Here, we’re going to focus on the sustainability pillar that AWS added to its Well-Architected Framework in December 2021.
AWS Well-Architected: The Sustainability Pillar
AWS’ dedicated sustainability pillar enables architectures to be reviewed and fine-tuned with environmental goals in mind. Applying the pillar to cloud workloads reveals deeper insights surrounding the repercussions of services used. Armed with this knowledge, it’s possible to apply design principles and adopt best practices that reduce negative impacts. Many of the steps that can improve sustainability align with best practices related to the other Well-Architected pillars. They are proven approaches associated with the modernisation of workloads for better cloud outcomes.
Sustainable Design Principles
AWS outlines six cloud architecture design principles to improve the environmental credentials of workloads, which can be summarised as follows:
- Understand Your Impact – measure the current impact and model the future impact of individual workloads. Establish key performance indicators to aid the evaluation of progress over time.
- Establish Sustainability Goals – set long-term aims such as reducing compute and storage resources required per transaction. Architect workloads so that growth results in reduced impact intensity against specific units (e.g. per user or per transaction).
- Maximise Utilisation – right-size workloads and implement efficient design to ensure high utilisation and maximum energy efficiency of underlying hardware.
- Anticipate and Adopt New, More Efficient Hardware and Software Offerings – support the upstream improvements of partners and suppliers to realise sustainability benefits for your own cloud workloads. Design for flexibility to allow rapid adoption of new, more efficient technologies.
- Use Managed Services – sharing services helps maximise resource utilisation, which reduces the amount of infrastructure needed to support cloud workloads. Some services ensure you use ‘just enough’ resources, like Amazon EC2 Auto Scaling which adjusts storage capacity to meet demand.
- Reduce Downstream Impact of Cloud Workloads – this can be achieved through measures such as eliminating the need for users to upgrade devices to use your services.
Best Practices to Reduce Resource Use
Recommended best practices for sustainability in the cloud from AWS are detailed and extensive. They cover everything from data, hardware, software and architecture patterns to user behaviour patterns, region selection and development/deployment processes. AWS suggests that organisations encourage team members to continually experiment with sustainability improvements as they develop functional requirements.
The implementation of some of the recommendations requires advanced cloud engineering capabilities. For instance, once you’ve identified application components that consume the most resources, the code within them can be optimised to minimise resource use while maximising performance. Similarly, when you understand how data is used within a workload, technologies can be selected to minimise data processing and storage requirements. This is likely to involve specialist database expertise to manage indexes and ensure their design supports efficient query execution.
Another practical way to improve sustainability is to make better use of build environments. Automation and infrastructure as code can be used to bring pre-production environments up when needed, and take them down when they’re not. Periods of availability can be scheduled to coincide with the working hours of the development team. Hibernating instances when they’re not needed is also an effective way to optimise resource use.
Sustainability as a Strategic Data Priority
Designing and managing cloud architectures with sustainability in mind can drive meaningful progress towards more environmentally friendly use of data in the cloud. What’s more, sustainability is often synonymous with cost-efficiency. When you derive greater value from cloud resources, and use fewer of them, it translates into direct cost savings.
Data is a key ingredient of business success in the digital age, so thinking strategically and sustainably about its use is essential. The choices companies make when starting out on their cloud journey have a direct impact here. Pragmatic, sustainability-led decisions can raise the bar on creativity, resulting in a greener cloud presence. Choosing a carbon-conscious supplier helps put sustainability front and centre. At Sourced, sustainability is one of our core values. We’d love to talk to you about putting sustainability at the heart of your cloud transformation.
The Sustainability Committee embodies and enacts one of Sourced’s core values: sustainability. We aim to educate and engage Sourced employees in meaningful ways to take sustainable actions through educational activities, community service, and strategic business opportunities.