How Hybrid Cloud and Colocation Can Enable Renewable IT Operations

Renewable energy investments by data center and cloud providers in combination with modern hybrid cloud frameworks can make enterprise IT sustainability easier.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology Analyst

August 20, 2020

5 Min Read
Solar array in Las Vegas, 2016
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Renewable energy investments by data center and cloud providers in combination with modern hybrid cloud frameworks can make enterprise IT sustainability easier.

All the major tech companies have loudly proclaimed their commitment to “going green,” and recently the pledges only grew bigger. Microsoft promised earlier this year that it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Amazon made a similar promise last year, although it gave itself until 2040 to make good on it. Netflix and Facebook, like others of their size, maintain sustainability reports that track the environmental impact of their operations and describe their efforts to reduce it.

It’s one thing to make big promises if you’re a huge tech company with pockets deep enough to rent entire wind farms to power your data centers, as Amazon has done, or purchase carbon offsets for all your operations’ energy consumption in pursuit of carbon neutrality. But what about smaller enterprises that want to take a sustainable approach to energy consumption for their IT operations but don’t have anywhere near the kind of resources the giants do? For them, it’s hard to do, especially when relying on on-premises data centers and have little control over where their energy comes from.

Thanks to the convergence of hybrid cloud architectures and increased sustainability efforts of some of the largest colocation providers, however, it’s becoming more feasible. An enterprise can migrate workloads to a hybrid architecture that spans colocation facilities and public clouds, taking advantage of the renewable-energy investments both types of data center providers continue to make.

Related:Just How Much Energy Will Edge Data Centers Consume?

Renewable Energy and Data Centers: An Overview

Whether you run workloads on-premises, in a colocation facility, or in a public cloud, determining how green those workloads are is complicated, for several reasons.

One is the ambiguity of the promises made by infrastructure providers regarding renewable energy. The big-name public cloud providers, as noted above, have committed to carbon neutrality. But whether that means operating totally free of energy generated by fossil fuels or using carbon offsets to make up for the dirty energy they consume remains unclear in most cases.

Likewise, colocation providers don’t usually offer full insight into their plans for energy sustainability. The largest of them, Equinix, says that 92 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources, and that it strives for energy efficiency of its data center infrastructure. But it’s not clear exactly how the company defines “clean” energy: Does it mean totally renewable sources, or simply cleaner fossil fuels, like natural gas? Most major colocation providers have also shied clear of promising full carbon neutrality; they merely say that they aim to reduce their carbon footprint.

Related:Study: Data Centers Responsible for 1 Percent of All Electricity Consumed Worldwide

An exception in the colocation market is Switch, which says that its data centers have been powered by renewable energy for over four years. Interestingly, though, even Switch appears to avoid claims of total carbon neutrality. It does after all still rely on the local utility grids wherever it operates.

Despite the ambiguities surrounding what clean energy actually means for different public clouds and colocation vendors, it’s safe to assume that in most cases infrastructure managed by one of these providers is more efficient and closer to being carbon-neutral than the average on-premises data center. Unlike major cloud and colocation vendors, which have pressured utilities to deliver cleaner energy for their data centers, companies that host workloads in their own facilities typically have to accept whatever energy sources their local utilities offer them. Generally speaking, more than 60 percent of those sources comprise fossil fuels within the US.

How Hybrid Cloud and Colocation Can Improve Energy Sustainability

If you have an on-premises data center and want to reduce your business’s carbon footprint, shutting down the on-prem hardware and replacing it with servers hosted in a colocation facility or the public cloud will help, if you choose a colocation provider that pursues renewable energy for its operations and cloud providers that do the same.

Thanks to modern hybrid cloud frameworks, making that kind of move is becoming easier. With a container-based hybrid cloud platform like Google Anthos or Azure Arc, companies can take the servers they already have, move them to a colocation facility and manage them from the public cloud without having to develop bespoke management tools.

These hybrid cloud frameworks, enabled by Kubernetes, decouple applications from the specific infrastructure they run on, making it easier to place some workloads in the public cloud and others in a colocation facility while still managing them in a unified way. 

This flexibility allows businesses to take advantage of the green-energy initiatives by multiple vendors at once, and to update their architectures as the renewable-energy landscape surrounding data centers continues to evolve. If a colocation provider announces a new renewable-energy initiative that you want to take advantage of, for instance, you could theoretically migrate workloads from a public cloud to one of that provider’s data centers without having to overhaul the way the workloads are deployed or managed.

Lingering Challenges for Renewable Energy in the Data Center

This isn’t to say that modern hybrid cloud models will eliminate all barriers to energy sustainability in the data center. The ambiguities surrounding how different vendors define and seek to implement clean energy and carbon neutrality will likely remain in place until these companies face greater pressure to explain the details of their sustainability strategies or standardize reporting.

At the same time, the fact that the electric grids that power most data centers rely on a range of energy sources makes it hard to know the origins of the electrons powering a particular server at any specific moment in time. As a result, except in the case of large companies that negotiate bespoke solutions with infrastructure providers (as in the case of Digital Realty, which made a deal with Facebook to source renewable energy for its workloads specifically), it remains very difficult to offer renewable energy sources as a mainstream product for all enterprises.

Still, hybrid cloud helps clear some of the hurdles separating the average enterprise from greener energy sourcing for its infrastructure. It may be quite a while before every company can make carbon-neutrality promises on the order of those of giants like Microsoft or Amazon, but replacing on-premises data centers with hybrid cloud infrastructure can be a first step in that direction.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology Analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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