When it comes to the growth of the internet and, more generally, our increased use of new technologies, the numbers are dramatic—internet traffic grew 12-fold from 2010 to 2019. Interestingly enough, the global energy consumption used by data centers in that same period stayed the same, as shown in this study. It begs the question: how is this possible?
Increased computing power from data centers has not driven more electricity consumption, as cloud data centers have increased their energy efficiency. There are several drivers behind this:
- Mutualization: Occupying servers with multiple user types and a large user base makes the required computing load more statistically predictable. Mechanically, this enables cloud providers to configure the average required loads closer to peak loads observed at key moments of the day (e.g., increased capacity allocation when users log on in the morning).
- Better usage of produced electricity: According to power usage effectiveness (PUE) metrics, cloud providers claim to have engineered a better ratio between the electricity consumed by data center equipment what is delivered to those devices. As evidence, each of the main public cloud actors has created studies comparing their cloud infrastructure against client-owned or collocated data centers, with results ranging from 22% to 90% better energy efficiency.
- Data centers fueled by renewable energy: Cloud providers are making commitments to power their data centers with a higher percentage of green energy, prioritizing sustainability in cloud practices. (See the figure below.)
Figure: Milestones for sustainability in cloud for major cloud players. (Note: Alibaba, a major public cloud provider, does not commit institutionally to a sustainability roadmap.)
Cloud computing and sustainability
The cloud is bought as a service. This enables IT leaders to focus more effort on their core mission of supporting business outcomes by not having to maintain complex in-house computing infrastructures. While the cloud uses equipment that is fundamentally the same as on-premise data centers, clients do not have visibility or control over the physical infrastructure that supports it, which is by design. A side effect of this is that companies have no idea how their cloud computing usage affects sustainability.
The resulting question remains: What does this mean for enterprises looking to reduce their environmental impact?
Based on past engagements and our own studies, Wavestone proposes several recommendations to help CIOs achieve green cloud computing goals and environmental sustainability:
- When moving workloads to the cloud, it’s important to commit your provider to its environmental impact. This commitment can be done through your service level agreement (SLA), where you can map out key sustainability and cloud metrics such as percentage of energy coming from renewable sources, PUE ratio, and overall server utilization. Additionally, you should track these same metrics for any on-premise data centers, regardless of whether you or a service provider operates it.
- Invest the required amount in infrastructure decommissioning projects. Companies migrating to the cloud will often focus on moving data over to the new IT systems but not put sufficient effort into decommissioning substantial portions of the on-premise infrastructure no longer utilized. Experience has shown that there are two main hurdles to this type of initiative:
- Fear of deleting data for regulatory (litigation hold, sector-specific regulations) or data privacy (employee’s personal data) reasons: Those concerns should be challenged with legal and data privacy teams and, while the objective of reducing this infrastructure to zero may seem impossible, strong savings can be made. You should only keep what is absolutely necessary.
- Fear of service interruption to legacy systems that did not make their way to the cloud: Most large enterprises eventually adopt a hybrid approach where a variable portion of their workload remains executed locally. Thorough analysis and an aggressive decommissioning will enable IT leaders to balance their cloud and sustainability efforts and keep this on-premise footprint to a minimum.
- Avoid multiplying backups of your cloud unless absolutely necessary. Backups simply multiply an enterprise’s environmental footprint while operating the same data.
These investments, especially infrastructure decommissioning, can prove to be intensive for IT departments. They will, however, undoubtedly bring long-term benefits like reduced IT run costs and operational efficiency, in addition to their positive impact on cloud computing and sustainability.
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