Every click costs carbon. From the pair of pyjamas you ordered online to the social media post you ‘liked’ five minutes ago, an increasing proportion of your daily interactions with the internet are supported by massive cloud computing operations. Consisting, in the main, of rack after rack of humming, blinking servers, these forests of steel and silicon are usually powered from the grid, and by proxy the coal and natural gas that make up the lion’s share of the global electricity market.
As such, cloud computing contributes between 2.5%-3.7% of all global carbon emissions, according to a 2019 study. That’s likely to increase dramatically over the next decade if cloud adoption by businesses continues to trend skyward, with one estimate placing the overall cloud market at $1.95trn by 2032. Such figures are the product of an always-on culture for online services, argues Sukhpal Singh Gill, a professor in cloud computing at Queen Mary University, London. “If you want to like or post one comment on Facebook, you want to do it immediately,” says Gill. “For that, you need a quick response from the server. And for that, we have to do cloud computing, because we want to create a quick service.”
Until now, that connection has been back of mind for consumers and chief executives alike. Recent surveys have shown, however, that both sides are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the cloud services supporting the online economy, and what they can do to ensure emissions don’t rise in parallel with our growing dependence on data centres. “We’ve run a CEO study every year and, for the first time maybe ever, sustainability – and environmental sustainability specifically – showed up as a top ten business priority,” says Ed Anderson, a Gartner analyst and an expert in the cloud computing market.
Even so, this doesn’t appear to be translated into meaningful steps by businesses to actually increase the sustainability of their cloud operations. Justin Keeble should know. As Google Cloud’s managing director of global sustainability, he had first eyes on a survey commissioned by the company charting investment in green commitments across European organisations. “A staggering 90% of C-level executives said ESG initiatives are a top organisational priority,” says Keeble. “But only 9% are allocating dedicated resources towards sustainability goals.”
This is all the more remarkable given the simple fact that it’s actually in the financial interest of most businesses and organisations to prioritise sustainability in their cloud operations. “There’s this very explicit correlation between the money you pay for the service, and the carbon that is emitted by the services you’re consuming,” says Anderson. As such, “cloud ends up becoming this expedited path to achieving those sustainability outcomes”.
A sustainable cloud
Leading the campaign for a sustainable cloud are, first and foremost, hyperscalers. The big three – Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud – have all been vocal about their own initiatives designed to increase the sustainability of individual data centres, as well as setting specific targets around their overall carbon footprints, their use of water, and adherence to the general principles of the circular economy.
At first, explains Gill, many of these efforts were concentrated in optimising the efficiency of data centres, some of the most interesting examples including the training of new machine learning models to eke out energy savings from this or that server operation. Training such models, however, consumes vast amounts of electricity, which has left major cloud providers concentrating instead on making bigger gestures, like powering data centres entirely on renewable energy.
“Over the past decade, Google purchased more renewable energy than any other company,” claims Keeble. That includes, he adds, new solar and wind projects in Chile, Finland and Denmark, with similar upcoming deals in the UK, US and Spain. Boosting the efficiency of water usage, too, is a priority, with Google Cloud committing to investing in community projects that “replenish 120% of the water we typically consume in our offices and data centres, in a bid to improve the health of the local watersheds.”
AWS and Azure, too, have made similar commitments to building sustainable clouds, with the delivery giant-turned-cloud superpower committing to powering all of its operations using renewable electricity by 2025. Microsoft, too, is “on track to shifting to 100% of renewable energy not only for our data centres, but also for our buildings and Microsoft campuses,” claims Michael Wignall, Azure Business Lead for Microsoft UK. “Our data centres in Sweden and Finland have also demonstrated that they can conserve power, and even contribute energy, back to the grid by giving back waste heat to the residential heating systems in the same district.”
But it isn’t enough for businesses to simply square away their data and software functionality onto a public cloud. Chief executives and CIOs looking to build a sustainable cloud architecture need to make decisions, too, about how to best use the servers at their disposal. One way they can do this, says Gill, is to simply reduce their net reliance on cloud computing and look toward making existing devices and software more efficient. “I think we should depend more on edge computing instead of cloud computing,” he argues.
There are also choices firms can make in the cloud itself, says Anderson, starting with leaning on providers to supply tools that can help them to achieve their own, individual sustainability ambitions. “This,” he suggests, could “come in the form of reference architectures, reporting and tracking tools.”
Such tools are already being provided by hyperscalers. Google Cloud, for example, offers its own Carbon Sense Suite, and Azure its Sustainability Calculator and Synapse Analytics for Sustainability, all of which afford firms the ability to make highly specific decisions on how best to reduce their environmental footprint in the cloud. In the case of the latter, it’s helped to reduce emissions for interest groups ranging from puffins to plane travellers, 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 has, says Wignall, deployed Azure data services to “enable sustainable growth for its employees, the local area, the national economy, and the wider industry”.
Hyperscalers certainly talk a big game when it comes to sustainability, says Anderson. “They’re outlining specific goals and targets,” he says. “That I give them high marks for.” Elsewhere, however, hyperscalers have been criticised for prioritising Power Purchasing Agreements and carbon credits of dubious effectiveness over more proven methods of reducing emissions. A recent survey of the emissions output of hyperscale provider regions around the world by Climatiq, meanwhile, found that data centres located in the global south are still lagging far behind their contemporaries above the equator. As such, says Anderson, firms seeking to prioritise sustainability in their cloud operations should still be shrewd in their ultimate choice of provider. “What have they put in place to achieve that [emissions] target, and are they showing meaningful process against that target?” he says. “Are they reporting openly and transparently? Can I see evidence of that in their technology and architecture to convince me that they’re really making good headway on that?”
This alludes to another challenge in making the cloud sustainable for future generations. Businesses, as well as providers such as Google Cloud and Azure, need to be ready to make specific decisions about how they use the cloud in order to reduce emissions, argues Anderson. “I think it would be foolhardy to think that the cloud providers have already solved this problem, [that they can] just outsource to the cloud providers 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 of which even call for moving their own data into the cloud, specific rules around the use and environmental abuse of data centres remain thin on the ground. For the moment, therefore, that leaves the responsibility for building a truly sustainable cloud up to private enterprise. Even so, says Anderson, “I think most of the cloud providers recognise that, regardless of whether it’s a mandatory compliance requirement or not, it will be at some point.”
Somewhat perversely for antitrust activists, it may even help that the public cloud market remains, for the moment, an oligopoly. After all, it’s easier to scrutinise the environmental measures of three companies than three hundred. “Amazon, Microsoft, Google: there’s a very small list who really dominate that part of the market,” says Anderson. “And there’s a lot of attention on them, in terms of how much of the world’s resources they’re using in terms of energy, electricity, bandwidth, and so on.”
What remains is action from businesses of all shapes and sizes in the choices they make to build a greener, more environmentally friendly cloud. For the CEOs and CIOs looking to rely ever more on humming, faraway server racks to power the change that their firm needs, Anderson has a message: “you have to take ultimate responsibility for your part in the overall sustainability outcomes across all organisations.”