You could not have missed the disastrous flooding that ripped through Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands last month. It was so bad that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier forgot about COVID-19 and described the floods as the “worst natural disaster” in a century. The deadly heat dome in Canada and the US last month along with other extreme weather events are being attributed to human emissions and climate change. You can judge how acute the problem is from the European Union considering a climate change plan (at the moment, the proposal is highly controversial) that may ban the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered cars within 20 years. As an increasing number of businesses embrace cloud technologies in the wake of the pandemic, it is useful to understand how their choices — if made wisely — can contribute to lowering emissions and building more sustainable businesses.
In the past, cloud has been singled out as a villain in the saga of global warming. Energy efficiency has not been the strong point of cloud-based datacenters. In 2011, researchers from Microsoft and the University of Virginia suggested that the heat generated by computers in datacenters could be used as the primary source of heating for homes and offices. In 2018, online video alone resulted in 300 million tons of CO2 — equivalent to the GHG emissions of Spain in a single year. With compute-intensive technologies like Artificial Intelligence, IoT, and Virtual Reality, the heat which cloud facilities will generate is frightening.
Growing commitment to net-zero emission
Fortunately, there are saving graces. Researchers have found that the computing output of cloud facilities increased 6X in the eight years between 2010 and 2018, but their energy consumption rose by a mere 6 percent. This good news notwithstanding, cloud providers are noting the commitment their enterprise customers are making to achieve net-zero GHG emissions. This increase in business commitment to neutralize the effects of climate change is reflected in a statement of the UN saying that the number of governments and businesses committed to net-zero emissions by the 2040s had doubled within a year.
Cloud providers are already moving to help achieve the net-zero GHG goals of their customers. The top cloud providers are increasing clean energy used to run their services. Google, for example, matched 100% of its electricity use with the purchase of renewable energy for the fourth year in a row. They have agreements to buy power from over 50 renewable energy projects. But the long-term goal of Google is to run on carbon-free energy by 2030. Amazon Web Services have set their sights on 2025 to go completely with clean energy. IBM and VMware are not far behind with their commitment to net-zero GHG by 2030. Azure is in the race to 2025 with Amazon to deliver sustainable cloud infrastructure with clean energy. Early last year, Azure announced the Microsoft Sustainability Calculator for its clients that can track the carbon emissions of their IT infrastructure and easily report environmental impact. The calculator also provides a view of the renewable energy projects Microsoft has invested in.
What does this mean for businesses aiming to offload their compute needs to cloud while keeping their net-zero goals in mind? It is simple: Businesses must begin to quickly choose cloud services that have shifted to renewable energy or have a commitment, with a time-bound roadmap, to shift to renewables. Businesses can immediately migrate their apps and data to locations that are on the path to renewables. They will need to keep regulatory requirements in mind which restrict the choice of geographies where data can be stored. But true leaders will bisect their regulatory needs with sustainability goals and achieve both — compliance and environment stewardship.
How to win the race, one small step at a time
Meanwhile, I have always believed that small steps help win the race. My recommendations for small steps that help reduce the chances of unexpected floods in Europe, unpredictable heatwaves in Canada, the disastrous melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and the terrifying prospect of coastal cities sinking as oceans rise, is:
· Optimize the use of cloud. Do not underutilize servers — which results in wasted energy.
· Bring experts to the table to determine your cloud architecture. Most businesses experience the need for frequent data transfers between their cloud implementations. This results in poor performance and often places a load of cloud infrastructure that can be avoided.
· Review the code for your applications. Optimize application performance before rollout. Although code and cloud infrastructure are not directly linked, good code reduces the burden on cloud resources.
· Balance redundancy with reliability. Businesses obsess far too much about redundancy but not enough about reliability. Most businesses won’t need multiple instances of their cloud workloads if they insisted on higher reliability.
· Use tools to monitor and measure your cloud carbon footprint. If you are not using a hyperscaler that provides the tools for measuring the emissions your cloud operations create, you can still use free open source tools. Even if you use multiple hyperscalers, these tools can bring a consolidated view of your emissions across providers.
Responsible businesses will already be examining ways to push back climate change. Cloud has the potential to eliminate a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over the next four years, possibly more, says a recent study — if 60% of datacenters adopt smarter technology. It is time for businesses to incentivize this improvement by showing a preference for providers using clean energy.
Founder, Chairman & Managing Director, Microland Limited