Organizations of all sizes are increasingly using cloud technology to support their digital transformation and scaling efforts. However, cloud sustainability has also become an important reason to migrate, as the cloud can support organizations' sustainability initiatives via better energy usage and efficiency.
A key promise of the cloud is that organizations pay only for what they consume. On top of that, cloud data centers are also typically more efficient than on-premises, or customer-operated, data center operations, where servers are not always fully utilized.
However, while the cloud can help organizations reduce their IT operations' impact on the climate, that's often not the primary reason why any organization moves to the cloud.
"I have never heard an exec say that they wanted to move to the cloud for sustainability reasons," Rahul Subramaniam, CEO of CloudFix, told ITPro Today. "Cloud usage is very strongly coupled with accelerating the pace of innovation and lowering costs, while sustainability benefits are discovered and realized as an afterthought."
Intersection of Cloud and Sustainability
A long-held promise of the cloud is efficiency, which yields strong benefits when it comes to sustainability initiatives.
For some organizations, there is a clear intersection of cloud and sustainability initiatives. A 2021 report from CloudBolt Software found that 68% of surveyed IT leaders said that a cloud provider's sustainability initiatives are an important factor in determining with whom they will do business.
"They are keenly aware of the problem of increased carbon emissions from data centers and are actively trying to mitigate it as much as possible while still accelerating innovation and automation," Jeff Kukowski, CEO of CloudBolt Software, told ITPro Today. "One of the most heartening results from the survey was that 79% said they would actually pay a premium to do business with a cloud vendor with demonstrable sustainability practices."
Cloud sustainability and energy usage are becoming growing priorities for businesses overall. In a Google-commissioned global survey of 2,000 IT leaders conducted by IDG, 90% of respondents stated that sustainability is a priority and/or a performance metric for their IT department.
"As the call for sustainable practices grows louder, we're seeing more customers seek out ways that they can make sustainable computing choices," Justin Keeble, managing director of global sustainability at Google, told ITPro Today.
How Organizations Can Measure Cloud Sustainability and Energy Usage
There are already a number of easily accessible tools available to help organizations use the cloud as part of their sustainability initiatives.
"Choosing vendors that are committed to carbon reduction and putting that into practice is a great first step, which the majority of IT leaders are doing," CloudBolt's Kukowski said. "AWS, [Microsoft] Azure, and GCP [Google Cloud Platform] are all quite outspoken about their commitment to carbon reduction, and they offer various monitoring tools to measure and reduce energy consumption."
The Big 3 public cloud providers all h+ave some form of service to help show organizations how cloud usage impacts sustainability and the environment. Google has the Carbon Footprint dashboard, Microsoft has the Emissions Impact Dashboard, and AWS has the Customer Carbon Footprint Tool.
For IT managers, CIOs, and others, the most important best practice for sustainability in the cloud is knowing the cause of the organization's climate impact and asking tough questions, according to Mike Mattera, Akamai's director of corporate sustainability. Questions asked include:
- Are we deployed in an optimized way?
- Are we using hardware that is energy-efficient?
- Are any of the processes we are doing across our deployed cloud operations causing peak CPU and disk usage that is translating to power spikes?
All those things matter when thinking about sustainability and reducing cloud climate impact, Mattera said.
"Gaining access to specific power usage data from data center partners is the best way to convey authentic and transparent impact as companies work to reduce impact," he told ITPro Today. "In most cases, customers are interested in environmental impacts with a goal to understand ways to make their operations more efficient."
Best Practices for Improving Cloud Sustainability
There are a number of key practices that organizations should consider to improve and advance sustainability efforts with cloud computing.
Understand cloud providers' sustainability goals. It's essential to have a general understanding of exactly where a cloud provider is deploying hardware; where operations will land; and the power usage effectiveness, water usage effectiveness, and carbon usage effectiveness of those operations, Mattera said. It's also paramount to understand the sustainability goals of that cloud provider and what it is doing to lower the impact of those operations for its customers.
"As good technology stewards, we all have a responsibility to do our part and reduce our environmental impact on the planet," he said.
Look at the big picture. Any single cloud is often only a piece of a larger IT puzzle. When an enterprise has a single overarching framework that provides full visibility and interoperability across all clouds and on-premises systems, it can see all the data and metrics needs from a single place, analyze it, and then target areas for increased efficiencies, CloudBolt's Kukowski said. This enables organizations to take three key carbon-saving measures: 1) reduce shadow IT, 2) automate cost controls and notifications, and 3) optimize continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD).
Bring technical and sustainability teams together. Fully integrating sustainability and IT teams with other functional teams across the organization, such as procurement, finance, or marketing teams, can help maximize the efficiency with which a company seizes its opportunities for more sustainability, Google's Keeble said.
"As is the case with our customers at Etsy, the close collaboration between technical and sustainability teams helped reduce Etsy's energy consumption and power their marketplace with 100% renewable electricity," he said.
Define shared metrics. A practical way to include sustainability in project goals is to decide on a shared metric, Keeble said. Just as IT departments would design metrics for application availability, they can also design environmental metrics.
"At Google Cloud, we tend to distill IT impact into carbon emissions," he said. "For customers like L'Oréal, the ability to use a tool like Carbon Footprint and measure their gross cloud carbon emissions enables them to track the impact of their sustainability principles and architecture decisions downstream."
Create a magic moment for sustainability. When moving toward sustainability, it is important to influence different audiences in the IT organization. Creating a "magic moment" for a given audience can nudge them toward making a sustainable choice, according to Keeble.
"Some of the ways we consider this at Google Cloud is to think of the developer workflow in our console, and highlighting green choices like lower carbon regions at the moment users are creating their resources," he said. "Businesses and organizations need better data, more transparency, and bold action to create the changes we urgently need."